REVIEW

Book Review: Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy

March 20, 2008
Shantanu Dutta

Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy is an extremely readable book once you get used to the fact that it is neither a traditional novel nor exactly a collection of short stories. The first few chapters seem to be a bit disjointed and there is a struggle to discern how the diverse characters link up. Once the reader gives up the effort to look for a direct connection and starts concentrating on the many characters that populate the book, it is an extremely warm and entertaining book.

The hub of the book is a Catholic shrine in a traditional Irish village dedicated to St. Ann, mother of the Virgin Mary in an Irish village by the name of Rossmore. Although the local priest, Father Flynn is skeptical about its religiosity, the local people have all gone there to pray for as long as one and his notional superior, the semi retired Fr. Cassidy can remember. People come to the well to make their wishes for marriage, children, cures of diseases, and success in other endeavors. Many of the characters have slim ties to one another through family connections, having gone to school with one together, or employment.

The undercurrent of the book is this shrine which is likely to be demolished soon. Rossmore used to be a small village but no more – traffic has significantly increased in recent years and there is talk of a new express way being built that will cut down the traffic passing through the town but will take away the much loved shrine from their midst. It is this development that makes people think through their connection to the shrine and over the years.

As Binchy brings to life person after person reminiscing about the Whitethorn Woods and the statue of St. Ann and their personal equation to it, we get to see the entire spectrum of human nature of human emotions bared before the statue of St. Ann and some memorable characters come to life – Neddy, the simple but golden hearted man who calls himself “Not the sharpest knife in the drawer but the luckiest”, that will remain with me long after the book has been shelved, though with so many characters to choose from, each reader can pick an choose their personal favorite.

In a subtle and understated way, Maeve Binchy tells us the story of an ancient county coping with change. There are references to the time when Ireland used to be poor and people as a result of the well known potato famines or the over all poverty prevailing. The new express way is a symbol of the many other ways in which Ireland is changing as is the devotion to St. Ann. The parish priest is befuddled as church attendance is declining by the day but the devotion to what is essentially a folk shrine shows no signs of abating and indeed the looming express way about to be built divides the town because to the modern irreligious, it is a sign of prosperity, new and better paying jobs and a thriving economy. But to the tradition bound the destruction of the shrine is nothing but a permanent end to a way of life they have always known and admired.

Two things stay with you after you have finished the book. The first that it is possible to say a lot without being preachy. She could have written a tome about tradition and modernity or about continuity and change but she didn’t. Instead through the format of a novel she has allowed the reader to raise their own questions and through the characters who inhabit its pages, she has offered some perspective but not pat answers. To sum it up, “Whitethorn Woods” is a novel which is really a fable wrapped up as a story. Certainly worth a read!

Shantanu Dutta is a medical doctor by training and a development professional by vocation. His writings mostly deal with change, complexity and conversion and tries to look at a changing world through heaven's eyes.
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