Horace Winter Says Goodbye review - Floats like a butterfly but there's a sting in this tale
Horace Winter Says Goodbye
Hachette Books, pbk, 320 pages, €15.99
Horace Winter is a lonely old man who's facing the inevitability of his retirement as assistant branch manager from the bank with increasing dread. His position (he never made it to actual manager due to his lifelong unmarried state) has been his only connection with the real world. Without it he faces rapid decline into friendless and isolated obscurity. His only interest is in butterflies and moths, and thanks to a book his father gave him when he was a child, he knows quite a bit about them. As his life has progressed, he has developed a habit of identifying folks as being either butterflies (good) or moths (not so good).
He suffers a fall in his driveway and a young neighbour, Amanda, rushes to his assistance. Amanda is to befriend poor Horace and help him through some very trying times ahead. He is soon to discover that he has a brain tumour and that his retirement may not be a long one. Given the future he envisages for himself, you'd be tempted to think his illness is a mercy. But it's at this point that the story really begins to move.
They say your life flashes before you at the instant of death, but what happens when you've suddenly been handed a protracted and painful death sentence? How might such a lingering danse macabre be choreographed? In Horace's case, and to his surprise, he quickly discovers that there's much to be done.
Motivated by witnessing a nasty incident involving a sadistic father abusing his young son, Horace decides it's time he did something heroic. And what follows is both inventive and heart-warming, very sad and very funny. Without a single sentimental word, Conor Bowman takes the reader on some last-minute journeys that Horace is compelled to take to make peace at all with his past; with the sudden, premature death of his beloved father (a butterfly) and the enduring, cloying bitterness and disappointment of his recently dead mother (definitely a moth).
The metaphor of flight, not just confined to moths and butterflies, returns again and again like the principal motif in a rondo, and it stitches the past and present together seamlessly. But then there's a lot that's seamless about this novel. Bowen is a very capable narrator of the darkness within. Horace's solitude after retirement has glimpses of Banville-esque despondency, just narrowly escaping the murk of self-pity. And before his memory fails him, Horace is forced to recall a splintered childhood, when 'The Bad Thing happened', casting a shadow on almost all of his subsequent days.
By contrast, his butterflies - or those his mother hasn't destroyed - are wildly colourful, remindful of sunshine and the summers of his youth. His many regrets about a life half-lived come to be finely balanced with a downright refusal to go gently into that good night.
Horace Winter is a character who will linger long after you've finished this highly original, moving, funny and elegant book.