CRITIPEG: Gothic Canadian tale is pleasurably bleak

Winter Willow, Deborah Anne Tunney, 200 pages, Great Plains Publications, November 2019

“I sat on the edge of the bed, the letter loose in my hand and stared at the space before me. ‘What is this space where I have decided to live,’ I wondered. ‘What stories hidden here?’”

Bleak. Dark. Utterly depressing. These are not descriptors for books that everyone might enjoy, but those who love the classic gothic literature of the Brontës or Bram Stoker will find what they need here.

Ottawa-based poet Deborah Anne Tunney has crafted a Canadian inheritance to classic English gothic tales in Winter Willow, perfectly executing the story of an intelligent but directionless woman caught up in the life of a mysterious man with a mysterious house.

The novel follows Melanie, a depressive young graduate student who listlessly wanders through life, trying to find meaning in post-wartime literature after her mother’s death. When Melanie's PhD funding is cancelled, she meets Stone, a celebrated author who hasn’t written in decades. He offers her a position as his assistant, and she is slowly pulled into his world and into the Winter Willow, his house shrouded in
mystery and fog.

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When she develops a relationship with another graduate student, Stone forces her to make a choice between her life at the Winter Willow and a future with the other student. As Stone grows more unstable in his possessiveness over time, the lines between Melanie’s identity and his late wife’s begin to blur.

Tunney’s background as a poet is clear, with such exact descriptions of a city, readers may forget that she is describing either Toronto or Ottawa, instead of the foggy docks of London where Jack the Ripper waits for his prey or the haunting moors of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

Mysterious fog enshrouds the city, Stone and the entire novel, even when no fog is mentioned. The story is revealed so exactly, yet at every step, Tunney seems to hide something from the reader, as we stumble forward through the story, as if with a candle in an unlit hallway.

Tightly coiled, classically dreary and pleasurably bleak, Winter Willow is a perfectly tuned instrument. Although reading a book about feeling trapped, isolated and depressed may not be the best choice for everyone during these days of social distancing, this book may give you the kind of weary catharsis we need in these trying times.

Winter Willow is available for order in an ebook or physical form from Great Plains Publications, as well at Physical copies can be purchased from McNally Robinson Booksellers, which offers curbside pickup.

Published in Volume 74, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 26, 2020)

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