The bookshelf of doom: ‘A place called Winter’

When I returned to Ireland at the end of 2015, I bid farewell to my book collection. This was one of the most heartbreaking parts of leaving Amsterdam. It was a collection that had been lovingly built up over decades. Comprising of books purchased in Dublin late last century when I lived there – these had been transported at my employer’s expense when I moved to the Land Below the Sea at the turn of the century – right up to the moment of departure, There were hundreds of books involved.

Being a deadweight however they are very difficult to transport. Spending hundreds of euros on emigrating them to an unknown destination – I had no job lined up in the homeland so wasn’t certain where I’d wash up – seemed a bit pointless. In my last few months I tried to rehouse as many as possible. Rarely did I leave the flat without a couple of books ensconced in my stylish man-bag to offer to random people I encountered. The laundrette near my house also received its share – people had a tendency to leave books there for others to pick up. A select few unmissables were transported back home. To my eternal shame some were discarded – there were simply too many to deal with. Being a last minute type of person I had not budgeted enough time for this horrific task.

My new life in Ireland began – bereft of books. I joined a book club in Limerick upon arrival but never attended, having sourced  a job in the capital. I moved to Dublin and entered a frenzy of book buying. While this may be a slight exaggeration, certainly I was buying a few  books per month -perhaps it was some subconscious attempt to restore what I had lost.

While I was buying all these books – a problem emerged . I was not reading any of them. My first year in Dublin – 2016 – was in fact an appalling year for my reading. But the pile kept growing. The bookshelf started to fill.

Until this January – when I made a resolution not to purchase any more books until major inroads had been made into the bookshelf of doom. This bookshelf sits in the corner of the room smirking at me. Judging me. Whispering ‘Why are you ignoring me?’.


I have made a valiant effort so far this year to address this mini personal crisis. It is starting to pay dividends and I don’t feel quite so oppressed when I glance in the corner any more.

I have just finished ‘ A place called Winter’ by Patrick Gale. This is a book I bought when I joined a book club when I initially moved to Dublin. Having failed at the Limerick book club, I still needed to make new friends. I never attended this new book club either. But I did acquire the book and had it placed on the shelf so it could join the others in condemning me.

No longer.

It’s the story of a man named Harry Cane. It begins with Harry being tortured / ‘treated’ in  a mental asylum. Harry was an orphaned heir who lived in Edwardian London with his brother. Being socially awkward he spent his life in the idle pursuit of entertainment. He was not short of cash being the oldest son and the heir to a reasonably sized fortune.

Stumbling into a marriage with an equally shy woman and his life continued on its sedate pattern until disaster struck. Upon meeting a theatrical type named Mr. Browning he started elocution lessons to deal with his stammer. An affair ensued. There’s not too much sympathy for the wife who had confessed on their honeymoon that she loved another man and had only married out of a sense of duty towards her mother. When the relationship with Browning is discovered Harry is given no choice. To escape blackmail, jail and social disgrace his wife’s family despatches Harry to the frontier in Canada – Saskatchewan – where 160 acres of land are being handed out by the land registry, for free to anyone who can cultivate and settle the land within three years.

So begins Harry’s journey.

It takes a look at a life in exile on the wild prairies of unsettled Canada. We meet a whole range of characters also hiding their own dark secrets – from the villainous Dane – Troels Munck; to the brother and sister on the neighbouring farm who are also escaping disgrace.

It’s a n interesting account of those forgotten people who fled or were banished from the stifling climate of polite society who went to create new lives for themselves.

It is also a sad and frustrating book. Sad because of how cruel and pointless Harry’s punishment seems. Frustrating because I wanted to shake him and yell ‘You don’t have to put up with this.’

Of course I live in Dublin in 2017. Harry lived in a settlement called Winter in Saskatchewan in 1912. He had no choice. He did have to put up with this.





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