Kerry Hardie, A Winter Marriage (Little, Brown, 2000)

This book, by Irish poet Kerry Hardie, is a wholly realistic story: a work of stark realism, describing the problems and trials faced by a woman with a problematic son who marries an Irish widower and comes to live on his farm in a small Irish town. The story plays out almost like a Greek tragedy, where the fates of characters are (for the most part) determined by their natures, and the story unfolds against the backdrop of a fairly realistic portrait of life in a small Irish town and the way that this town's long-standing histories and relationships are affected by the arrival of an outsider. The basic plot of A Winter Marriage can be described as "the outsider in an insular town," which is a tried-and-true theme whose success or failure lies in the execution. Hardie achieves mixed results here.

I'm having a hard time describing my reactions to this book. On the one hand, I didn't like any of the characters. Not one. Well, OK, there is one that comes close -- a reclusive taxidermist named Danno, whose taciturn nature makes him the involuntary confidant of nearly everyone else in the novel -- but just about everyone else is, in some way, seriously dysfunctional. Reading this book is like spending time with all of the family relations you don't like, and being forced to take a guided tour of their foibles and misadventures and mistakes in life; and, in some cases, their horrid and repugnant actions.

But the weird thing is this: Hardie kept me involved, and kept me turning the pages. It was something like a literary car wreck; I wanted to look away, but I couldn't.

The book focuses on Hannie Bennet, a woman who has moved from Africa to Britain with her teenage son Joss. Hannie's past is checkered -- very checkered, indeed -- and the book opens with the stark observation that Hannie is looking for marriage for utilitarian reasons only. She needs a man, preferably a man of means, to care and provide for her and Joss. That's it. Hannie is prickly from the start, and every time I think she is about to soften, she hardens over again. Hannie meets Ned Renvyle "at a wedding she had gone to because she needed a husband and a wedding wasn't a bad place to begin looking." Ned, who is a bit bored with social conventions himself, is taken with Hannie's frank and blunt personality, and the marriage is quickly arranged. They move to Ned's farm in Ireland, which is described in fairly bleak terms; Hardie's skill with language is evident here as she creates the sense of an old country where people have lived for years, and mostly out of habit. The world of A Winter Marriage has the requisite sense of ennui draped over everything like the fogs and dank clouds in Hardie's skies. I've never read Hardie's poetry, but on the basis of this novel I suspect she is quite good at evoking mood through imagery.

As the story unfolds, events transpire that are not particularly surprising. It is no shock to learn that Hannie's son, Joss, is a very problematic child with a pronounced streak of meanness. He lies, cheats, blackmails, gets tossed out of school, and so on. What is surprising is Hannie's reaction to it all: not only does she not stew and fret over Joss's behavior, instead accepting it as part of his nature (she compares him to one of Danno's falcons, or a cat who plays with its prey) and even mirroring some of it herself. At Christmas, Ned gives Hannie a fan that belonged to his grandmother; she plans almost immediately to pawn it for money, which she soon does. Hannie makes little effort -- actually, no effort at all -- to fit into the social structures of this small Irish town; instead she revels in her status as the outsider. She flaunts it. And in the end, she turns out to have reasons entirely her own for her acceptance of Joss's nature. Some of these revelations are interesting, while others are a bit pedestrian and disappointing.

Ned is not particularly sympathetic either. He is the man who puts up with behavior from the people around him that few other people would willingly tolerate, not out of a sense of honor but seemingly out of the belief that addressing it all would take more effort than it's worth. Ned is constantly overhearing conversations not meant for him; many times in the novel it turns out that he is entirely aware of actions that Hannie had thought him blissfully ignorant about. Ned is not as well-drawn a character as Hannie, but I'm not entirely sure he needs to be.

I must also note that I have trouble knowing what to make of the novel's third act, when events pick up more speed and unfold with depressing fatalism and violence. These events start out seeming cliched, and then their resolution seems too pat -- particularly the fate of one character. But even then, the novel's coda is not quite what we might expect, and it ends as unsettlingly as it has progressed all along; the sense is not so much of a story ending as a viewing of a portion of a person's life terminating while the life itself goes on. I'm not sure whether Hardie could have depicted these characters behaving in any other way than they do, and the character whose fate I mention as being possibly too pat may actually not be; the fate as depicted by Hardie in some sense diverts the story from one possible line that one might expect it to take. The feeling, then, is that the book's denouement is at the same time expected and unforeseen. How Hardie has managed this is something of a conundrum to me.

I think I can honestly say that I didn't actually like A Winter Marriage. I can also honestly say that since I finished it I've thought quite a bit about Hannie and Ned. Here I've found a book whose characters I didn't like, whose actions and emotions are unremittingly bleak and muted -- and it's a book that I had to finish.

[Kelly Sedinger]