"A Winter Marriage"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark NOV 30, 2002)
"A farm again. Well, she wouldn't starve, it would be a home for Joss, And she was older now she might settle. Who knows what you can settle to if there isn't a choice? Certainly she, Hannie, did not."
Hannie needs to find another husband. The last one, Andrew, died so at least this time she is a widow and not a divorcee; but she needs to take advantage of her status before people hear the rumors. Her problem is that she and Andrew separated unbeknownst to all before he died, thus they'll be no money coming to her. Still attractive enough at fifty-two, Hannie hedges her bets and meager resources by traveling from Africa to England for Andrew's favorite niece's wedding, because "a wedding wasn't a bad place to begin looking." At the wedding she meets Ned Renvyle. At nearly seventy, he is just beginning to realize that he wants what he's been missing. He was married briefly in his youth and after his young bride died, he held onto her memories, and just continued to travel and write his nominally well sought after books. Of late, he has since gone back "home" to Youghal, Ireland and is trying his hand at running a farm in the same place (and with the same friends) where he grew up. He and his friends are of the right class, long standing families; they just aren't the ones with money anymore.
Men have always liked Hannie and marrying them is how she gets by. Unexpectedly, but then again she hasn't much time, she is candid with Ned about her motivations; she's broke and she needs help raising her 14-year-old son, Joss. With Ned's lack of experience with women, he finds her honesty easy and after a week together, he decides to propose. He knows that bringing back a wife is bound to have the locals and his friends talking, at least, he assumes, until they get used to her. Hannie's hesitation is that he seems to have enough money to get by on, at least enough to pay for Joss's boarding school, but she can see that he's not got a lot of it or if he does, he's fairly tight with it. But she also senses that when it gets tough going with Joss (which she's absolutely positive it will), that he will stand by her. And this is more important to her than anything. Besides, worst case, she can just use this marriage to tie her over until she finds another.
Right off she's realizes that she might have made one mistake in her thinking. She hadn't imagined what Ireland would be like, especially after living in Africa. The stars are small, the sky is gray, the air is moist and cold and everything is so closed in and crowded with the past. What they call mountains look like foothills. Ned says "you'll get used to them, once your eye adjusts, they'll seem quite high." But that's the thing that Ned isn't prepared for. Hannie isn't willing to settle and see things the way the locals do. In fact, Hannie doesn't behave the way most people behave.
I'm not sure what I was expecting out of this novel when I began it, anymore than Ned knew what he was getting into marrying Hannie. There's such a straightforward use of the language and the dialogue --- the same honesty that attracted Ned to Hannie -- it compelled me to continue reading. Beyond that there is a suspense that carries from beginning to end: Who is this son Joss? What is it that went so terribly wrong between her and Andrew? Meeting Joss does not resolve the mystery but it heightens the sense of foreboding. Of course wrapped around the mystery of Joss is the mystery of Hannie. How far will Hannie go to support her corrupt son? Is Joss like he is because of her? Another edge to the story is that Hannie is fighting off any introspection into herself. She doesn't want to know, she just wants to survive as she has always survived (and thus she repeats the same acts, but is it the same?). She only admits one overriding concern, at fifty-two can she still attract a "Lord Tung" the mythical man who comes into town to steal the young maiden's heart?
The author is so skillful with narration and the shifting points of view that even though it is Hannie's story, we don't always like her perspective or what she chooses to do (or not do), at least not right away. Like Ned, we want her to behave differently. And even when we start to come around to her, we are reminded of her shortcomings, the things that Hannie can't see, or refuses to see, especially when it comes to her son, Joss. Though we trust what Hannie tells us, we never trust her when it comes to Joss. Actually, that's wrong. She knows Joss better than any of us. We don't trust what she'll do about him.
Indeed there is a lot that could be discussed about this novel. Is Hannie to be blamed for for Joss's character deficiency? Is Hannie's behavior maternal instinct or something corrupt in herself? What makes up a marriage or a friendship? Or you could contrast Alison against Hannie - the selfless versus the survivor. Or ask if Hannie has always behaved the way she is in this novel or she is too tired to maintain pretense with Ned her 5th husband? Or one can explore the descriptions of nature or the Irish landscape and the metaphors implied. The one thing that this Irish author does not do is rehash anything to do with the IRA or UFF conflicts. She seems to know her countrymen well enough without introducing this traditional storyline. "Best not to mention the previous marriages," Ned said to her suddenly. "Catholic country, and all that."
So, if you haven't guessed it so far, I highly recommend this novel and would think that any reading group would find it a goldmine for character study. And with the plot twists and turns, you will want to discuss it. It is such a reward to come across a novel of this caliber, especially when one wasn't expecting it.
- Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from A Winter Marriage at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Blog page on Kerrie Hardie
- Seattle Times review of The Bird Woman
- Denver Post review of The Bird Woman
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