My sole reason for reading this book was I loved McCann’s debut novel, As Meat Loves Salt. In a Donna Tartt style timeframe, her second novel was a decade in getting here. While McCann’s first novel is not quite the towering brilliance that was The Secret History, believe me when I tell you this sophomore effort is leaps and bounds more enjoyable than The Little Friend.
Set in rural England in 1672, it focuses on Jonathan Dymond, a young cider maker, whose life has been entirely unremarkable and completely content thus far. When Jonathan’s uncle is taken ill, he wishes to see his brother one last time. Jonathan’s father returns a day later, bearing the news of his brother’s death. Nothing seems untoward until Jonathan, by chance, finds a fragment of a letter in his father’s pocket and with its talk of inheritance and vengeance, points Jonathan in the direction of a whole heap of skeletons in the closet.
Like its predecessor, The Wilding takes its time to build up a head of steam. We’re introduced to an array of sharply drawn characters and there’s a lot of cider pressing going on before we get to the business at hand. Jonathan befriends his uncle’s nurse, Tamar, and is introduced to her mother, who is an old beggar woman. They live rough in the wood behind his uncle’s property and they draw Jonathan in, weaving him quite a story about what his uncle was really like. But how much of it is true?
Everybody knows the past just won’t stay buried, so it’s of no surprise that the eventual truth spills out and not everyone gets a happy ending. There is a magnificent, wrenching scene between Jonathan and his frosty Aunt Harriet when he tries to tell her what he’s discovered. <spoiler alert> When she reveals that she’s known the truth about her dead husband all along and knows a shedload more on top, it’s genuinely chilling. Poor Jonathan is no match for any of the women he encounters, come to that. He’s a decidedly gauche narrator.
Immaculately researched and lovingly told (he may be gauche, but it’s obvious McCann has a great deal of affection for our hapless cider maker), The Wilding is the perfect book to while away a Sunday afternoon with. Please don’t take 10 years to write the next one.