The protagonist of Patrick McCabe's Winterwood is the definition of an unreliable narrator: Every word he puts on the page has to be questioned and examined, as it may be redacted later. Ultimately, Winterwood is as much puzzle as novel, and not the kind of puzzle that comes with an answer key at the end; McCabe hints at a number of things, but leaves a great deal to readers' imaginations and interpretation. The subtlety is appreciated, but it's easy to wish for more substance to go with it; surely the audience shouldn't have to do all the work.
The book opens in 1981, with journalist Redmond Hatch returning to his rural Irish hometown to write about the changing face of Ireland. He naturally seizes upon local character Ned Strange as the embodiment of the old ways; as far as the community is concerned, Strange keeps the old songs, stories, and customs alive, freeing everyone else to move into the modern world with impunity. But his arrest for the rape and murder of a local boy raises the question, who is the real Ned Strange? Which is the real Ireland? Are Redmond's stories about himself anything like the truth? Can any part of this tale be trusted?
Previous McCabe books (including The Butcher Boy and Breakfast On Pluto, both of which were adapted as Neil Jordan films) have also played with identity, illusion, and self-definition, and McCabe makes his theme clear early on, as Strange delights in painting himself as a jealous killer, then laughing his own stories off as mere jokes when Redmond gets discomfited. Readers may feel similarly manipulated and confused, as Redmond tells his own story of perfect marriage and idealized fatherhood, then starts revealing, after things come apart, that there's far more to the story than he claimed. The story rockets forward in time, laying solid ground and then revealing, through Redmond's increasingly erratic behavior, that it's all just smoke. As things progress, everyone's true nature becomes steadily more elusive. McCabe's writing is evocative and atmospheric, especially as Winterwood becomes a ghost story of several kinds. But it's also a ghost of a story, frustratingly intangible and vague. Most of its questions are never really answered, and the unsatisfying ending raises the final question: Does even McCabe himself really know what's going on here?