Warm, wise and a great storyteller to the end
FICTION:Maeve Binchy’s final novel, about an Irish woman returning from decades in the US to a small town on the Atlantic coast, brings her career full circle
A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy, Orion, 361pp, £18.99
When serious critics turn their attention to popular fiction, being a good storyteller is often depicted as a sort of mildly impressive talent, like being able to scramble eggs perfectly. The ability to simply tell a story well and straightforwardly is, it’s frequently implied, clearly inferior to other literary skills. But creating and, more importantly, managing a plot are, as anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows, extremely difficult. Creating an engaging cast of characters and deftly manoeuvring them through long, winding yet carefully paced stories in a way that leaves the reader desperate to find out what happens next, as Maeve Binchy repeatedly did over the course of her long career as a novelist, is a very rare skill indeed.
Binchy’s first novel, Light a Penny Candle, was published in 1982. Now that Irish writers of commercial fiction are popular all over the world, it’s hard to remember how radical her early novels were. They were big, juicy page-turners, as compelling (though never vaguely as raunchy) as anything by her contemporaries Shirley Conran and Jackie Collins – but they were set in Ireland, and a totally recognisable Ireland at that. When Binchy died, in July, Marian Keyes said that reading the older author’s books had been the first time she had read and loved something written in Hiberno-English, and many readers, myself included, had similar experiences in the 1980s.
“At a time when Ireland was a theocracy in all but name,” wrote Keyes, “she made Irish women feel that their lives mattered and that their stories were worth telling.”
A Week in Winter is Binchy’s final book, and, like many of her most popular novels, it’s set in a small Irish town. Stoneybridge sits somewhere on the Atlantic coast, surrounded by beautiful scenery but “wet, wild and lonely”. It’s where Geraldine Starr, known as Chicky, grew up and, in the book’s opening chapter, to where she returns after living in the US for several decades. She buys Stone House, the family home of a shabbily genteel old lady, Queenie Sheedy, the last of the Sheedy sisters.
Queenie urges Chicky to turn the rambling old house into a hotel, a scheme that will transform the lives not just of Chicky but also of her staff and guests.
As the book progresses, we’re introduced to each of them and discover what brought them to Stone House, from Winnie, forced to go on holiday with her boyfriend’s appalling mother, to Anders, a Swedish folk-music lover who feels trapped in his family business. All the characters spring to vivid life on the page, and all the stories are engaging; perhaps the sharpest and funniest is the tale of the Walls, an eccentric middle-aged couple obsessed with entering competitions, who learn to expand their horizons.
Like her early books, such as The Lilac Bus, A Week in Winter is essentially a collection of short stories, each one devoted to a different character, and there’s something rather nice about the idea that her writing career should come full circle in this way. This does mean, inevitably, that the book isn’t as all-enveloping as her more traditional novels, as the narrative’s focus moves from one character to another.
The most jarring element, however, is the fact that the book sometimes feels as though it is set in a much earlier Ireland: the story runs from the 1990s to the present day, yet women shock their neighbours by drinking pints in pubs, pregnant teenagers immediately get married and even older women having children out of wedlock is a secret and a scandal.
But in a way this adds to the timeless air. And the book shows that Binchy’s compassion and warmth were undimmed to the very end. When she died a lot was made of the fact that her books were generally regarded as comfort reading. One word that came up repeatedly was “cosy”, which gave the impression that Binchy’s work was cutesy and simplistic. But there was always much more to Binchy’s work than that. Over her long career as a novelist she tackled many serious issues with the compassion, insight, intelligence and wit that anyone who ever read her wonderful journalism would expect. She rarely offered traditional happy endings; there was always an acknowledgment that life is more complicated than that.
But while her novels aren’t cosy, they are always kind. There is no gratuitous cruelty in her books. When there are villains, their greatest sins seem to be coldness and intolerance. Miss Howe, a bitter old woman who stays in Stone House and whose only pleasure seems to lie in making others uncomfortable and unhappy, is a chilling creation, but the people she mistreats are able to rise above her nastiness. If Binchy’s books are comforting, that comfort comes from the sense that the author clearly believed that most human beings are essentially decent and that even if bad things happen to them they’ll find a way to deal with them. All the characters in A Week in Winter are struggling – with traumatic memories, with isolation, with regrets. Yet Binchy guides her creations through their troubles with a firm and kind hand, leaving them ready to move on to a happier future. Maybe that’s why so many readers loved her so much. That and the fact that she always knew how to tell a very good story.