Julius Winsome: A Novel

By Gerard Donovan

Faber £10.99, 215 pages

FT bookshop price: £8.79

It is one of fiction’s common stunts to make us love what we would not love - to call us over and show us the devil’s tears, the murderer’s broken heart. This is often achieved through a careful choice of lens and a particular, unforgettable voice. In this, his third novel, Gerard Donovan has the gentle, exquisite tone of Julius Winsome - a loner turned sniper, living in a hermit’s cabin in weather-spun Maine woods. He prods at certain questions: what is it that sends us over the edge into the unspeakable, how far could we go, and will any part of us change as a result?

Julius’s heart is broken slowly, over the course of various events, though most immediately by the death of his dog, his only friend, Hobbes. This is the moment that sets off the novel’s disturbing events. Hobbes is shot at close range by a roaming hunter - probably a man, a rifle-carrier, enthuser of Remington slide action and Rifle Association badges, killer of bears, deer, birds - and dogs.

Julius, quietly destroyed, is shrouded by his solitude. He buries Hobbes in the ground yards from the cabin and starts to miss him, and begins a weirdly dazed, childlike revenge with his own spotless rifle handed down to him from his father, and originally his grandfather, who fought in the first world war.

But Julius’s heart could equally have been broken before the death of Hobbes. It could have been because of Claire, the woman from a neighbouring town who came out of the woods one day into the clearing where Julius’s cabin sat. He invites her in for tea and she is charmed by his walls of books - his father’s books, some cold, others close to the fire and warm. She comes back again and again to read poetry and lie down with Julius. She makes him realise that, actually, company is nice. But then, just after a trip together to get Julius a dog under Claire’s encouragement, she stops coming. She settles down with someone safe and normal called Troy, a police officer, who confronts Julius at the end of the novel.

Both rich and spare in its construction, the layers and the delicacy with which Donovan has weaved the character of Julius means that we could wonder endlessly about his motives for revenge and about what is going on with his heart. Indeed, his heartbreak could have begun with the death of his father - an enduring spirit between the lines, killed by lung cancer. Julius remembers him for his beloved reading, how he taught him to clean the rifle which he never used - perhaps because his own father, 20 years after returning from the war, began to dream of the men he had killed and could no longer sleep. In a strange renewal of grief, Julius begins to quote again the Elizabethan words his father used to make him recite from Shakespeare. “You fired from hiding, but I saw you. And your convoy is a cullion,” he says to his victim, now dead and unhearing, “a damp red rag of a man dressed in camouflage”.

It’s difficult not to love Julius, for his weirdness and his loyalty, his understated extremities, his sadness that seeps off the page, and most of all for his manner of speaking. His language - for Julius narrates the novel - is luminous and transcendental, gorgeously idiosyncratic: “The night froze me like a stick and shook me at the world.” He writes wonderfully on weather, on the forest that is white or green or red according to season, and in particular about five running deer, like ghosts, their eyes shining in moonlight. It is mesmerising, hypnotic language, with new twists and daring, unlaboured turns.

Donovan has managed to reflect the character of nature - wild, vibrant, eerie, vulnerable - in his words, and the novel is made into a kind of mirror. Julius’s mounting vengefulness is like something turning cold, like the onset of a Maine forest winter. His losses are ghostly, like the running deer. This is an enormously resonant, wise and beautiful exploration of grief and solitude, and the bottomless legacy of violence.

Diana Evans is author of ‘26a’ (Vintage), which won the Orange Award for New Writers 2005.

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