Sceptre, £12.99, 034089797
Even for those, myself included, who maintain there is no better writer of contemporary crime fiction than Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone exceeds expectations. From the very first sentence – ‘Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat’ – you know you’re in for something special. With a poetic and hard-edged prose style, Woodrell’s stories are the stuff from which nightmares are made. Perhaps the quality of the writing derives from Woodrell having published only seven novels over the last 20 years, which has kept his writing fresh and interesting, both for the reader and the author. Even better than the excellent Tomato Red and The Death of Sweet Mister, and as unrelenting as Woe to Live On, Winter’s Bone follows the 16-year-old Ree who has to look after her two younger brothers as well as a demented mother in the depths of the Ozark hills. During a snowbound winter, Ree’s father, a local crank manufacturer, puts up the family home for bail, then disappears. With failure to appear in court resulting in the family becoming homeless, Ree, tough and more unrelenting than any teenager since Portis’s True Grit, sets out to find her father. This results in a local feud in a region where just about everyone is related; violence, paranoia and secrecy are rife; and everybody exists outside the law. With a narrative that moves like a winter storm, from dark to darker, Winter’s Bone is the best crime novel I’ve read for ages.
And another view…
It’s an understated crime novel, yet crime, and violence permeate the thin and cold air which forms the setting for this moving story of sixteen year old Ree Dolly, looking after two younger brothers and a mother shell-shocked by life
in a crumbling house straight out of a gothic novel photographed by Walker Percy. Ree’s daddy, Jessup Dolly, is one of the premiere crank cookers in the area, but he’s due to appear in court, and if he doesn’t show up, he’ll forfeit his bail bond, their house. Ree can’t let that happen, so she sets off through the snowy hills to find Jessup. Woodrell will be praised for the reality of the Ozark setting and the dialogue in this book, but that is merely one facet. What makes it work is the way his narration never grates against his characters, and that comes from his command of their attitude; he knows what makes them tick, and that is what the book is about. There are few writers, in the crime genre or out, who can exercise such tight control over their prose, and have it come out flowing so naturally. These are exactly the sort of bent family values which lurked beneath Faulkner or Caldwell or O’Connor or any of the great southern writers who looked at the belly of their society. I once remarked that, of all the modern writers sometimes called ‘country noir’ Woodrell is the only one who is really both. This book backs up that assertion, but, more so, has to rank with the best novels, in genre or out, to have been written this year. I also believe it would make a teenaged best-seller, if it could ever be marketed to ‘young adults’ in America. Woodrell deserves more attention, and this is the sort of book that by all rights should get it.