The question of identity is at the heart of Linden MacIntyre’s powerful new novel, The Winter Women, although the exact nature of the question is constantly changing: How well do I know my loved ones? How much of what I remember is the truth? And, perhaps most importantly, who am I when everything I knew is taken away?
As MacIntyre writes, “A name is just a name. Identity is something different, something deep and private that is only shared with those we trust over time. I took the list of people for granted [Allan] Trust was very brief. Me and Anni. And of course Peggy. “
Byron, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, has known the Winter Sisters and Allan Chase almost all of his life. He met sisters Peggy and Annie in high school in rural Nova Scotia – in fact, it was Peggy who nicknamed him Byron based on his limp, the lingering memory of a childhood accident. Byron fell in love with Peggy quickly, a longing that lingered throughout his adult life, even though he married Annie; Allan, a soccer hero he met at university, married Peggy. The four’s lives are intertwined on both a personal and a business level when Peggy, Annie and Byron work for Allan in a business that flirts more than just illegality (Allan started out as a trucker after graduation, hauling drugs alongside regular charges, creating an empire that he needed help with legitimizing).
Everything begins to fall apart, however, when Allan – in his sixties – suffers a heart attack while on a golf trip with Byron. Almost simultaneously with Allan’s ongoing convalescence, Byron begins to experience symptoms of the dementia his mother claimed (“When I first heard anyone mention Alzheimer’s, I thought they were saying ‘old timers.'” As his memory shakes, events become his Past – including the death of his uncle Angus and the events in the barn that led to his limp – questioned as the true nature of his friends is revealed.
While the language and voice of “The Winter Wives” seem straightforward, sometimes almost laconic, this should not be seen as a simple book. Longtime journalist MacIntyre – who was awarded the Giller Prize in 2009 for his novel “The Bishop’s Bishop” – writes with a slight mastery of both the outside world – including international crime, criminal investigation, law, and degenerative cognitive diseases – and the world Inner world of complex and often contradicting characters.
While Allan’s complicated relationship to the truth is evident at the beginning of the book (“Actually, Allan had many names – inventions that he could use when needed and then leave behind, as irrelevant as worn-out shoes. A name is a personality, he would say, and a persona has no substance. “), the full disclosure of Byron’s character is a much slower revelation. MacIntyre isn’t afraid to portray his narrator in a negative light – readers will likely flinch or be disgusted at some of his actions – but the result is a realistic portrayal of a flawed person who is unsure of the world around him and struggles with his own nature, a struggle that makes The Winter Wives powerful, thought-provoking read.
Robert J. Wiersema is most recently the author of “Seven Crow Stories”