Winterwood by Patrick McCabe Bloomsbury, HK$208 Patrick McCabe made his name on an Irish literary scene replete with sentimental novels that idealise traditional life and warn against the potentially devastating impact of economic development and urbanisation. Against the backdrop of scepticism about Ireland's rapid gentrification McCabe's fiction has challenged the mythology surrounding the Irish countryside by focusing on what he calls 'the secret lives of small towns'. Establishing himself as one of Ireland's foremost contemporary writers with 1992's The Butcher Boy, McCabe's novels focus on the gritty aspects of rural life that have been neglected by a modern Ireland that has always shown great reverence towards the idea of 'simpler times'. His novels often shock - The Butcher Boy is the story of a homicidal schoolchild and Breakfast on Pluto is narrated from the perspective of a transgendered prostitute - chronicling the activities of social misfits in deceptively banal rural settings. And so it is with Winterwood, McCabe's latest offering, narrated by the unreliable Redmond Hatch, a journalist from Slievenageeha Mountain, a largely deserted mountain plain, who returns to his home town on assignment to write about mythology and folklore in 1980s Ireland. Hatch's dispatches paint a typically idealised portrait of village culture and focus in particular on one mountain resident, Ned Strange, a freckled old musician whose ceilidhs - traditional Irish gatherings with music, dancing and storytelling - are always well attended by the local population and embody everything about Irish tradition that is under threat of extinction. Hatch is soon mesmerised by 'Pappie' Strange's stories of mountain life and returns to Slievenageeha with a view to writing an extended version of his life story. Further investigation reveals shocking aspects of Strange's life that were not relayed in his initial reports; the saga of the old man's shocking response to his dead wife's infidelity and his travels to America soon belies the idyllic serenity that Hatch, and his readers, saw in rural life. Returning to the city to be with his beloved fiancee Catherine, Hatch loses his job and as a consequence his relationship with the old mountain man takes on a new dimension. News comes through that Strange has been arrested for raping and brutally murdering a boy from Slievenageeha and has committed suicide in custody, which has a profound effect on Hatch. When Catherine commits adultery and moves to Dublin with custody of their newborn daughter Imogen, Hatch's world and identity collapses. Here the novel takes a darker turn and begins to trace Hatch's descent into antisocial behaviour and madness, as the ghost of Ned Strange begins to prey on the now destitute Redmond and guide him through a thoroughly candid and unpleasant recollection of his past. The complexity of the plot and the thoroughly ambiguous narrative devices surrounding the narrator's insanity are testament to McCabe's skill as a novelist - where literary portrayals of the deranged from Nabokov to Palahniuk have left the reader with a profound sense of revulsion, Redmond Hatch's account of his actions is measured, understated and, strangely, almost endearing. The reader can never fully discern from Hatch's equivocal account whether or not the apparitions he sees are genuine or a product of his twisted imagination. Hatch's unreliability is precisely what makes Winterwood such an intriguing novel and does much to inform the reader's perceptions of his crimes; the narrative gaining momentum only through a series of clues and fragments shifting between the past and present and each recollection tinged by his own narcissism. The result is an unexpected sympathy for McCabe's narrator, despite bearing witness to his slow, painful decline into insanity and subsequently brutal behaviour, described with unnerving indifference. For longstanding fans of McCabe, perhaps the most conspicuous feature of the book will be its lack of humour; where sharp-witted observations permeated McCabe's early novels Winterwood is an entirely serious affair. This may disappoint some fans of McCabe's lively prose but this deliberately understated novel is a reflection of his power as a storyteller. Style is allowed to take a backseat to what is ultimately a shocking portrait of loss and a man in the midst of a violent transition that has a strangely beautiful life of its own.