Michael Peterman: Linden MacIntyre explores identity and connection – ThePeterboroughExaminer.com

Linden MacIntyre is the author of ‘The Winter Wives,’ Random House Canada.

  • Linden MacIntyre is the author of ‘The Winter Wives,’ Random House Canada.

  • ‘The Winter Wives,’ by Linden MacIntyre, Random House Canada, 344 pages, is the story of two Nova Scotia men who married sisters. The novel explores dementia, identity and character.

By Michael PetermanSpecial to the Examiner

Sat., Nov. 13, 20216 min. read

When I picked up Linden MacIntyre’s “The Winter Wives” this summer, I wasn’t sure how I would respond. I began by asking, how could you not be interested in this writer? He’s a Cape Bretoner who for 50 years had been one of Canada’s most impressive and reliable journalists.

Most of us remember him as a CBC reporter, particularly with the network’s major investigative program “The Fifth Estate.” There he made an outstanding name for himself in his inquiries into the darker aspects of Canadian business, politics, and social behaviour. All that work would seem enough for one life!

But, having set one kind of high standard for himself, MacIntyre began in his retirement to write novels. And he has proven to be no temporary tourist in the literary groves of Canada. “The Bishop’s Man” won the Scotiabank Giller Prize” in 2009. Having casually glanced at a number of reviews of his books, I found myself keen to read one of his novels and consider how he was doing in his new-found vocation. I was also interested in how he reflected his Maritime roots in his fiction.

“The Winter Wives” (2021) caught my attention this summer and I can report that I have emerged from the reading both impressed and disappointed, not to say a little frustrated. The weight of the novel — its plot, mysteries, and themes — hangs on the novel’s narrator. His name is Angus but early on he is nicknamed Byron because of his pronounced limp and his literary inclinations. He is a native of Malignant Cove, a small port town on the Northumberland Strait near Antigonish, Nova Scotia. ‘What’s in a name?’ you might well ask. I’ll leave that to you.

How does a reader respond to a quiet and self-effacing narrator who controls vision and perception throughout the novel? Of the four major characters in “The Winter Wives,” Byron is our key to understanding the actions of others and delivering meaning to us.

He has the first and the last word as we sail through the narrative’s ups and downs. As a reader I felt an increasing need for some dramatic or insightful situation that could bring matters together at the end? I found myself asking if MacIntrye intended his readers to be disappointed in Byron? In an exciting narrative about smuggling, money laundering, sexual misadventures, pedophilia, and dementia, he is almost always the observer.

Such is the challenge of Angus (Byron) in “The Winter Wives” — we don’t even know his last name. Everything depends on what he sees and how he responds to others. On the surface he may seem to be the least interesting of the major characters — certainly he doesn’t think of himself as consequential.

However, he controls the narrative and oversees all its complexities. Even the titular ‘winter wives’ — sisters Peggy and Annie Winter who are friends from high school — seems to lose some of their pertinence as the story evolves.

While it is paced like a thriller, the novel develops a number of important contrasts — country vs. city (more specifically, life in the rural Maritimes vs. life in busy, overpopulated Toronto), university education vs. opportunism in the real world, steady work habits vs. the “easy” life of criminality, and the behaviour of well-to-do people vs. those who must work hard for a living.

The story begins with the attractiveness of success and the sexual excitement of young people in the forms of Allan Chase and Peggy Winters; however, it slowly evolves into a rather dull study of self-recognition and rootedness. The wide range of contemporary temptations that Byron experiences don’t manage to dislocate him from his maritime roots. An anxious and essentially passive man, he finds most satisfaction in the life he has known from childhood.

Though his life at Malignant Cove includes a farm, a lobster boat, and his own truck (all inherited from his father), Byron is content at first to work hand in hand with his widowed mother on the farm and on the water. Together they make an unusual mother-son lobstering team! However, he is also drawn to the advantages of a university education and a law degree; both expose him to the wider world of attractions and opportunities.

At the same time he carries with him troubling memories of an incident that occurred when he was five years old. In the family barn his father suddenly beats up his uncle Angus just before his mother arrives on a snowmobile and inadvertently runs over her son as he tried to escape the violence.

Byron is never quite able to recall what transpired in the barn, but he has a vague sense that Uncle Angus may have been accused of molesting him. Recalling only a sense of his uncle’s kindness, Byron doesn’t manage to find out any more from his mother despite their closely entwined lives. Nor is he inclined to pursue the matter though he could readily consult newspaper reports of the subsequent trial and look into what led his uncle to commit suicide. When questioned, his mother refuses to address these matters; later her descent into dementia cuts off access to Byron’s inquiries.

That back story underlies Byron’s passivity and lack of curiosity. But his passivity becomes an asset in drawing the attention of outgoing people like Allan Chase and Peggy Winter. Allan is a football hero from Ontario nicknamed “the Great Chase” for his good looks and his prowess as a linebacker.

He chooses unathletic Byron as his special buddy. “I‘ve never really understood why we became friends,” Byron muses. But that friendship persists after Allan leaves university to pursue his life-dream of making easy-money. He hangs on to Byron, introducing him to Toronto and his new gig of money laundering.

Peggy Winter is Byron’s ideal of a girlfriend. Seeing him as unaggressive and protective, she plays him out over many years, tempting him but continually him. That she later works for and marries Allan puts the two of them in a curious alliance.

Peggy’s more pragmatic sister Annie later marries Byron in an act less of passion than empathy; in particular she helps Byron look after his ailing mother. But as an accountant she, like Peggy, works for Allan helping him keep his money neatly separated from his illegal activities. It is their work that makes Allan a very successful investor in property.

But with all the excitement associated with Allan and Peggy and their activities, Byron remains mostly alone in Nova Scotia. He is at ease there as he sorts out what life makes available to him. But his lack of interest in the world around him reflects his characteristic passivity. I found that passivity increasingly frustrating.

Other aspects of the novel also proved bothersome. The title is perplexing — how suitable is it to Byron’s story, despite his romantic imagining of a new home that he might share in retirement with the Winter sisters near Malignant Cove? So too the novel uses the framing device of golf scenes that seem inappropriate and trumped up. Golf links more to Allan, who suffers a debilitating stroke on the course in the first chapter, than to Byron who hates the game and would prefer to be elsewhere. In fact, for all of his physical appeal and duplicity, Allan is not well realized except in giving voice to his numerous failings.

All in all, then, “The Winter Wives” is a love song to Nova Scotia that is only partially realized.