I once heard Roddy Doyle described as the Beatles of modern Irish fiction. If this is the case, then the edgier and more disturbing Patrick McCabe must be its Rolling Stones. This is not to say that Doyle deals with lovable Dublin scallies; the televised and novelised trials of Paula Spencer and the sadness of Paddy Clarke show us otherwise. Its just that we tend to define our cities by turmoil. Urban centres duck and dive, rolling with the punches of social change; despite the obvious hardships, this seems to be their raison detre.
But on both sides of the Irish Sea we still insist upon painting a more idealised picture of rural life. While Dublin has indisputably altered greatly over the past 15 years, the most profound impact of the Celtic Tiger has been in rural Ireland. Areas previously isolated by economic deprivation and neglect are being opened up as industrial, residential and infrastructure developments proliferate across the Emerald Isle. One of the questions McCabes writing often asks is: what, then, happens to the culture?
Big changes need bold writers to engage with them, and McCabe has never been shy about kicking away the stones to see what comes crawling out. His new novel, Winterwood, a sustained achievement of often dazzling brilliance, examines the old versus new Ireland conflict. This has been successfully attempted before, not least by McCabe himself, but arguably never pulled off with such enlightenment and finesse as within these pages.
The protagonist of the book is Redmond Hatch, a shape-shifting monster who, like most of them, is all too human. Shape-shifting has been prominent in Celtic mythology, more Welsh than Irish in its associations, though Aoifes stepchildren, the Children of Lir, were turned into swans in order to banish them (a tale recounted by the Irish folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory). Hatch hails from the Midland mountains of Ireland, and its he who narrates Winterwood. Over the years we see this mountain boy move adroitly between the depressed margins of Irish and London-Irish society and the status and acclaim of Dublins professional media classes. These transitions are always difficult for a writer to achieve convincingly, but McCabe does it seamlessly, rendering Hatch all the more sinister in the process.
There are problems inherent in dealing with both a shape-shifter and an unreliable narrator. How literally or metaphorically should we take these transformations, and which elements are we to believe and which are we to discard from the troubled Hatchs tale? The strength of this book is that the quality of the writing largely circumvents any such difficulties, allowing the story to work on several levels.
One of the things McCabe particularly excels at is evoking the quiet, mordant desperation behind the gung-ho positivism of the craic is mighty brigade, that coping mechanism of Ireland and the Irish diaspora over the decades of economic and social hardship. Thus McCabes sly, good old country boys are scarier than the city hardmen, their homespun joviality often on the edge of lurching into a blood-simple, reductivist cruelty.
They dont come any creepier than Pappie Strange, whose fiddlers reels and mountain tales spun with a silky tongue have wooed the local parents. Anxious at the loss of tradition, they are happy to entrust their young offspring into the care of this character at the ceilidhs he runs. Hatch, as a local journalist made good, heads back to his mountain homelands to do a feature on Pappie, and also falls under the old musicians spell. The two embark on a peculiar relationship of nemesis and apprentice, as the older man mesmerises him:
It is only when Hatch gets together with the sugar-lipped Catherine, then becomes the subject of a restraining and banning order preventing him from seeing their daughter, Immy, that the chilling connections between Hatch and Pappie become apparent. The books pages take on a disquieting and malign hue as we realise that Hatch is not what he seems. Yet the sinuous but often understated prose delights, even as it unravels the narrators chilling duality.
His publishers claim that this is McCabes greatest work, and on this occasion the hype isnt exaggerated. Winterwood is at least as good (and as disturbing) as The Butcher Boy, and probably glows with an even greater social resonance. In charting the journey from the horrible silence of the paedophile priests and rural poverty into an economically booming, multi-ethnic society, McCabe has written a brilliant and disturbing profile of an individual and a place in often violent transition. In the process, hes also raised the bar for the contemporary Irish novel; which, in a country such as Ireland, where good writers often seem as commonplace as pigeons, constitutes no small achievement. But hes done far more even than that. Winterwood is that rarest thing: a novel dealing with humanity at its most twisted and bleak, but one that leaves the reader feeling curiously uplifted. And thats because we realise that weve been standing in an illuminating beam whose source is, and can only be, truly great art.