Book of the week : A Week In Winter - Maeve Binchy

Simply knowing that A Week in Winter is Irish writer Maeve Binchy’s final book makes it difficult to start. This is the last fresh story we’ll read from this writer. Without even beginning to read, the end is already in sight

Binchy died in July at the age of 72. She had finished this book a few weeks prior and was apparently just working on the final polish, which her editor completed. It makes this book poignant, and that poignancy is impossible to ignore

Particularly since one of the first things a reader sees is the inscription “For dear generous Gordon who makes life great every single day.” It’s to her husband, Gordon Snell, to whom she was married for 35 years

It gives one pause to feel for Gordon, to feel sad for ourselves, that we’ve lost this great storyteller. A former journalist, she had an eye for the telling detail, the ones that would give depth to a story, or turn a character’s life on its head

But Binchy wasn’t given to sentimentality. While it’s fine to have a tear in your eye, there’s no point in lingering over it forever. Life must, eventually, go on, as must the books

In A Week in Winter, Binchy has once again created fully realized characters in quick, short strokes. It’s a style we’ve become used to in books including Light a Penny Candle, Circle of Friends and Tara Road — part of the canon which sold some 40 million copies worldwide

Stoneybridge, on the west coast of Ireland, is full of holidaymakers in summer, its beaches full of buckets and spades and sandcastles. But in winter, it’s ‘wet, wild and lonely.’ Few choose to walk along the fine sands, the big round pebbles and the exposed rocky promontories that make up the windswept Atlantic coastline

Those who do visit can’t help but see Stone House, the big house on the cliff which is owned by Geraldine Starr, better known as Chicky, who grew up in this part of the world and has returned after living in the US for several decades

Stone House was once the rambling family home of Queenie Sheedy, the last of the Sheedy sisters, and she’s persuaded Chicky to turn the old house into a beautiful hotel specialising in winter holidays. Its big, warm kitchen, its log fires and its elegant bedrooms provide a welcome few can resist, whatever their reasons for coming

Her first guests came for a week in winter — to enjoy the walks and the spectacular scenery. They came for different reasons — most need a break from some issue in their lives — and Binchy tells their stories one by oneThere’s Rigger, who’s redeeming himself after breaking the heart of his mother, Nuala. Cheerful nurse Winnie and her potential mother-in-law from hell, Lillian. John, an American actor traveling anonymously but his famous face gives him away. Henry and Nicola, doctors whose fears threaten to overshadow their desire to heal. The Walls, so focused on winning things for free they forgot to enjoy what was already theirs. Anders, a Swedish folk music fan, feels trapped in his family business, eccentric Freda, who claims to be a psychic – and a part-time hairdresser – and then there’s Nora, a cold, silent, watchful, older woman who always appears ready to disapprove

As we get to know each of these very different people, we learn about their fears, their disappointments, their desperation… and their hopes for a better future

Throughout the stories, the old world of the west coast of Ireland is contrasted with the world of Twitter and Facebook, mobile phones and splendid, silent isolation. Binchy often, one thinks, inserts herself in some of the declarations of sensible, old-fashioned values. “What were women doing, allowing themselves to be sucked into a world of labels and trends and the artificial demands of style? Eva couldn’t fathom it. She had only two rules of style — easy-care and brightly coloured — and was perfectly well dressed for every occasion”

Binchy is known for her hopeful, if not always entirely happy, endings. Miss Howe, for instance, a retired school principal, is truly bitter and mean. We find in the end that, perhaps, she has reason to be. But there’s no sympathy for her — despite tough lives, we all make the choice, ultimately, as to who we want to be. It’s a philosophy of common sense and wisdom, both of which we’ve come to expect from Binchy

And, like us, most of the guests left knowing much more about themselves than when they arrived

A Week in Winter is a glorious swansong … serious themes examined, scrutinised and handled with insight, intelligence and a large helping of Binchy’s unforgettable kindness. And so the book ends and we say goodbye to an old friend

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December 10, 2012

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