Saturday, 10 January 2009

BOOK REVIEW: JULIUS WINSOME

'Those who live the longest and those who die the soonest lose the same thing. The present is all you can give up, since that is all you have.'
- MARCUS AURELIUS

Writers will give you all number of reasons for why they choose to spend long hours in isolation, the prospects of publication fragile, financial reward moderate (all but a rare few earn enough to live on from writing fiction alone). Personally, there's no better motivation than stumbling upon a remarkable tale, and wanting to emulate it, to produce a similar effect in someone else.

Gerard Donovan's third novel, Julius Winsome, is one of those rare cases - a book so masterful, so compelling, I found myself reading more slowly towards the end, just to stretch the experience to its fullest, savouring the beautiful prose a little longer.

Set in the wintry wilds of Maine, Winsome lives in a log cabin, alone apart from his dog, Hobbes, and surrounded by books (his father lined the walls with some 3,000 classics) that insulate him literally and metaphorically. The narrative is stark yet poetic, as we glimpse Winsome's harsh existence, a sense of forboding and loss quietly stirring. When a hunter flippantly kills his dog, it acts as a tipping point for Winsome who starts to unhinge: 'I didn't have feeling where I should and too much where I shouldn't. You keep away from men like me and you'll be alright in life.' His revenge - never fuelled by rage - is calm, meditative and murderous. It’s no surprise to learn Donovan is a poet, his precise language perfectly evoking the beautiful and austere landscape, to which the story is inextricably bound. This is a novel of wonderful contrasts: bleak but gentle; slow-burning yet tense; and the sympathy elicited for a killer we both understand yet don’t.

The ghostly presence of Winsome’s father and grandfather echo through the Lee-Enfield rifle brought back from the killing fields of Europe, a meditation on violence skilfully woven in. Winsome’s losses and grief never become sentimental despite the often allegorical subtext: even his name suggests contradiction (the imperious ‘Julius’ Caesar, ‘Winsome’ suggesting something more benign). As a quiet madness takes hold, Winsome begins quoting Shakespearean archaisms, the fire crackling and spitting as the world closes in around him.

The reader is horrified yet intrigued by Winsome's actions, which evoke an empathy despite their increasing insanity.

By turns tender and brutal, I was haunted by this lyrical tale for days. It probably won’t win the awards it deserves but I suspect time will reveal it to be a modern classic.

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