Whitethorn Woods (by Maeve Binchy)

I do like Maeve Binchy's books. I seem to enjoy her recent ones more than her earlier novels, but they're all great stories, well written, with believable and three-dimensional characters.

However I'd heard rather mixed reviews about her latest book, 'Whitethorn Woods. Some mentioned that it wasn't really a novel, it was just a collection of linked short stories. Others said it was good, but nothing like as enjoyable as - say - 'Scarlet Feather', or 'Nights of Rain and stars'. Yet others said it was enjoyable and well worth reading.

But I had it on my wishlist, and was given it for Christmas; I read it in the last few days. I find I agree in some sense with all the opinions I had read!

'Whitethorn Woods' is, indeed, like a collection of short stories, though not exactly. It's not one novel with just a few central characters: instead, each chapter focuses on two primary people, and then rather cleverly tells a story from their two points of view.

However, all these stories are linked. The beginning and the end of the book are written from the point of view of Father Brian Flynn, who is trying to maintain neutrality about a major political issue. There are rumours that a new road will be running through the village, probably cutting right through the ancient woods, and destroying a controversial shrine to St Ann (reputedly the mother of Mary, mother of Jesus). People in their droves have been going to this shrine for many years, praying for health, or restored relationships, or to find husbands - and many other requests.

Father Flynn knows all the locals, and is aware that for some of them a new road will be a great blessing, whereas for others it would be too big a sacrifice to lose the woods and the shrine. He can see both sides of the issue, and tries to avoid committing himself either way.

Then, in each chapter, we meet either a resident of the town, or someone who is connected with it in some way. Most of the stories build - however loosely - on the previous ones, and gradually expand on some of the previous subplots. For instance, in one of the earlier stories we hear about a woman whose husband is in jail; he accused her of selling their first baby, while she claimed the baby was stolen. We then meet the mother in a later story, and later still actually meet the person who stole the baby - and see her perspective.

Other stories stand more alone, merely showing yet another instance of someone for whom the shrine of St Ann has been significant in some way. And they introduce us to the kinds of people who live in this area of Ireland.

So it's a circular kind of book - we see the problem of the road at the beginning, we see various perspectives on it, and eventually we find out what happens, having understood better why it's so significant.

But it's also quite thought-provoking, seeing the storylines from different points of view. And there are some interesting comments on society expectations too: the bright school teacher marrying a local lad considered 'not the sharpest knife in the drawer', for instance. But not being ultra sharp is not a problem in this case. The young man is organised, thoughtful, generous, and utterly honest.

I quite liked each chapter being complete in itself - it was easy to stop reading at any point, and it was also easy to pick up the book for just fifteen minutes or so, and read just one chapter. But I also liked the clever characterisation, so that several people could see the same events through radically different viewpoints.

As always with Maeve Binchy, the writing was excellent and the people believable. I did find the sheer number of them a little confusing at times, and had to check back to see who was being referred to - but that wasn't really a problem.

All in all, I enjoyed 'Whitethorn Woods' very much, and would recommend it highly to anyone who enjoys light character-based fiction.

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