The death of much-loved Irish author Maeve Binchy earlier this year was a huge loss to the book world so what a Christmas treat to be able to turn the pages of her very last novel.
A Week in Winter, set in a country house hotel on the west coast of Ireland, is another classic, a magical, captivating story full of her trademark warmth, humour and eclectic cast of lovable characters.
Compassion was always Binchy’s greatest gift and this quality shines through what is essentially a collection of individual short stories featuring a disparate group of people all staying at the same hotel.
Some are troubled or unhappy, some are eccentric and in one way or another, life is proving a struggle, whether the cause is regret, loneliness, events in their past or traumatic memories. Each is seeking the answer to a problem and, with Binchy as their sympathetic creator and guide, a resolution might just be possible.
Stoneybridge is full of holidaymakers in summer, its beaches full of buckets and spades and sandcastles. But in winter, it’s ‘wet, wild and lonely.’ Few choose to walk along the fine sands, the big round pebbles and the exposed rocky promontories that make up the windswept Atlantic coastline.
Those who do visit can’t help but see Stone House, the big house on the cliff which is owned by Geraldine Starr, better known as Chicky, who grew up in this part of the world and has returned after living in the US for several decades.
Stone House was once the rambling family home of Queenie Sheedy, the last of the Sheedy sisters, and she has persuaded Chicky to turn the old house into a beautiful hotel specialising in winter holidays. Its big, warm kitchen, its log fires and its elegant bedrooms provide a welcome few can resist, whatever their reasons for coming.
The hotel has transformed Chicky’s life and it is set to change the fortunes of its guests. Henry and Nicola are burdened with a terrible secret, cheerful nurse Winnie is on an enforced holiday with her boyfriend’s obnoxious mother, John has arrived on an impulse after he missed a flight at Shannon, Anders, a Swedish folk music fan, feels trapped in his family business, eccentric Freda claims to be a psychic – and a part-time hairdresser – and then there’s Nora, a cold, silent, watchful, older woman who always appears ready to disapprove.
As we get to know each of these very different people, we learn about their fears, their disappointments, their desperation... and their hopes for a better future.
A Week in Winter is a glorious swansong ... serious themes examined, scrutinised and handled with insight, intelligence and a large helping of Binchy’s unforgettable kindness.
(Orion, hardback, £18.99)