Gerard Donovan: Julius Winsome

Gerard Donovan is one of those writers who’s been on my secondary radar since his debut novel Schopenhauer’s Telescope was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003.  As mental tags go, one could do worse; and it probably has done no harm either that I keep conflating him in my mind with the wonderful Gerard Woodward.  Anyway, he has published two novels since then (though his second, Doctor Salt, he has rewritten for American publication as Sunless, saying “the sense I was after just wasn’t in the novel” first time around), and the newest, Julius Winsome, has just been published in paperback here in the UK.

Julius Winsome

A word about the title.  If you’re going to name the novel after your main character, you’d better get it right, and for me Julius Winsome – the name, not the book – is only half-right.  Julius yes, for a solemn reflective man brought up by his father on Shakespeare; but Winsome, meaning attractive or appealing in appearance or character, and with its echoes of whimsical?  Well, I’m not so sure.  Yes and no.  He sounds more like a character from children’s fiction to me. Win some, lose some.

But nomenclature notwithstanding, Julius Winsome is precisely the sort of character who can head up a novel all on his own.  Donovan has steeped himself in off-the-shelf atmospherics: the cold Maine winters, the isolated log cabin, the lonely man and his dog; but he doesn’t milk it.  Where others given this setting (and it might be that Donovan, as an Irish emigrant to the US, is more detached from the landscape) could make a dense mess of language that the characters – and reader – can’t escape from, Donovan keeps it low-key, unfussy, and the tone becomes gradually devastating without him ever needing to turn up the volume.

If I were to write my life in one sentence up till now, I would say that at one point I lived in a cabin for fifty-one years.

Anyway the dog doesn’t last long; indeed he dies offstage as chapter one opens with a line that would have delighted Kingsley Amis, who claimed toward the end of his life that he could only read books now that began, “A shot rang out.”  Here we have, “I think I heard the shot.”  Close enough.

Julius, “surrounded by 3,282 books” (sounds like heaven) is about to have his uneventful existence shattered.  It’s been shattered once before, when a woman, Claire, found him and moved in for a time, and he tells us of their meeting from several different angles.  We also get multiple tellings of the story of how Claire helped him find another companion – preparing Julius for her departure, perhaps – in his beloved terrier Hobbes.  For Julius, bereavement is becoming a regular occurrence, but this time when he is left alone, there is no one or nothing there to help him cope, and he determines to exact revenge on whoever shot his dog.

Julius Winsome then becomes a tale of the dangers of isolation, and how far we can go when we have no one at our side to temper our responses.  “To look for evidence meant sharpening the details of what was already known,” which really means reshaping the facts to fit your fears.

What the book does so well is reflect the stasis of Julius’s life – “I waited for nothing.  And nothing came” – without becoming dull itself.  In Julius’s remote landscape, “distances collapse, time is thrown out,” and the book achieves a similar trickery by being both spare and immersive, short but engrossing right up to the breathless closing chapters.

Julius experiences life in the perpetual present, with nothing ahead and so little behind him that his days are occupied memorising lists of Shakespeare’s neologisms which his father taught him in the cabin as a child.

I feared suddenly that I had reached a time where life had taught me all it was going to or wanted to.  From this point on it would be a circle for me, always the same again, and harder to bear at each turn of the wheel when it came round.

It is a call to action, and reflection about our own lives, and deals with the biggest ideas in asking us to consider how best to live.  …Which I shall do right away, immediately, just as soon as I finish another book.


  1. This sound like a novel that will never be made into a movie: too contemplative.

    A good novel in the sense that it gets you to thinking.

    I hope that the bookcases don’t come down and crash on him and kill him.

  2. Spot on again John. A novel which shows vividly the dangers of isolation and surprised me with the effectiveness of it’s narrator and structure. I found myself laughing at first at the way he uses the language he learns from books slightly inappropriately (something a lot of us readers do when saying certain words in public for the first time…don’t we?) and then cringeing later on as that language becomes so expressive of the violence.

    Also good to be reminded that even a vast collection of the best writing is no substitute for real human experience and interaction!

  3. John – A thoughtful piece, as always … but William, I’m not sure the book is about the dangers of isolation. I got no sense from Julius that living with people would have made him a different person, that Hobbes’ death in a city wouldn’t have had him out on the streets or climbing a watertower with his gun. John, I think it’s about justice raw in tooth and claw, the Shakespearian justice of Macbeth or Hamlet, or Titus Andronicus … a more primal force than man-made law, an instinct that goes beyond the rationalisation of ‘how best to live’. Isabel, I think the Coen Brothers would work wonders with this material. Cheers, Dec

  4. “Win some, lose some.” That made me snort (winsomely of course).

    It sounds pretty depressing and it would probably make me cry, but the prose reads beautifully. It will go on my “maybe” list.

    Great write-up, as usual.

  5. Declan – I see what you mean about ‘Shakespearian justice’ but I think that in the same way that his lack of contact with others means that he is unaware that people don’t speak in Elizabethan English anymore, it warps his sense of an appropriate response to Hobbes’ death. This is a man whose morals have been shaped purely by what he has read (rather than experienced), left bereft of the one relationship he has really enjoyed in his life; that with his dog. I realise you’re a crime novelist however Declan so justice is your metier!

  6. Thanks for your comments everyone, and I’m delighted to see that others have discovered this book. Declan, I love your take on it, the justice is absolutely Shakespearean, and I hope the book – short though it may be – is big enough to carry both our interpretations!

    If anyone has read the twice-written Doctor Salt*, or the Booker-longlisted Schopenhauer’s Telescope, I’d love to know what you make of them.

    *I have a weakness for books titled Doctor … – probably from Dr Haggard’s Disease. I’m getting ready for Soderberg’s Doctor Glas too.

  7. William – I know more about dead dogs than justice, and to be honest I prefer cats (live ones). I like your take on Julius from a linguistic point of view, it offers a new light on the idea of ‘an appropriate response’, definitely. John, I’m afraid there’s only room for one interpretation in this here town, and it’s your town. So I’ll happily defer … Really, I don’t mind why people read this book, so long as they read it. And you could do a lot worse than add Dr No to your list of ‘doctor’ books … Cheers, Dec

  8. John, I’ve read ST and the first Doctor Salt. ST has stayed with me more than I expected it to. It’s very much a book of the senses, and if you’re talking about isolation, the book teems with it. The two hander with both men by a grave had echoes of both Beckett’s Godot and Rosencratnz and Guildenstern digging the grave in Hamlet. So the Shakespearian references you mention in this book don’t surprise me at all.

    I liked elements Doctor Salt too, but I can completely understand why Donovan felt he’d missed something. As a portrait of a family it works well, but when it shifts away from the domestic, it lost some of its impact.

    A friend did a creative writing course with Donovan and said he was an amazing teacher.

  9. Thanks Sinéad.

    The two hander with both men by a grave had echoes of both Beckett’s Godot and Rosencratnz and Guildenstern digging the grave in Hamlet.

    What a concept! Sounds just like my kind of thing. I have no idea why I didn’t read this, or even learn more about it, at the time.

  10. Another one for the list. It sounds quite intense which I like in a book. And I’m discovering that some of my favourite reads are cold books. Perhaps cold settings provoke / promote the kind of insular themes that interest me. Its a strange thing because I dont particularly like cold weather in real life. I find myself drawn to icy / snowy covers and titles (but not those misery ‘white cover books’!) more and more. I’m getting quite a collection.

  11. Oh thank you Mark – that’s terrific, and a very interesting read. I’m surprised and impressed that Donovan wrote the book so quickly.

    What interests me thematically in the novel is what kind of moral compass we have as humans, or more directly, what kind of moral compass I have. What would people really do if a beloved dog or indeed companion of any kind were shot and they could exact revenge without legal consequences?

    Hey, you were right Declan!

    Jem: can I recommend Patrick McCabe’s Winterwood to add to your snowy collection? One of my favourite reads of the last couple of years.

  12. I welcome any of your recommendations any day John – but I already have that on my list, thanks to your previous review! I’m thinking of working on a small survey / post about hot / cold reading. Although I may have to do some hot books first to allow for fair comparison.

  13. always been aware of this killing instinct that some, so called hunters have.
    given any opportunity they will kill anything available, you can bring a beautiful black bear from her cubs by feeding her donuts and molasses everyday.The ones with the savage instinct are sitting safely thirty feet away up in a tree stand and will murder this animal while she eats.The same one will crush a mouse with his boot or run over a squirrel with the car.I believe that none of these types would ever step foot in a golden gloves ring,they are the truest cowards.Donovan shed light on these types in Julius Winsome,and much more.Great book,i’ll pass it on !!!

    1. I often felt the same aversion toward the hunter, mixed with the ‘just rewards’ element, but the problem is, hunting is thrilling because it is part of our recent evolution as a meat eating ape. If Julius didnt have the shop to go to, he would have been harvesting meat too, sparingly. Modern humans are in a twilight zone between hunter/gathering and vegetarianism. I loathe cruelty, and attribute all animals with soft dog -like qualities. A tremendous book

  14. I am from Morocco , and I have received that book as a gihet from a great person. while reading the book , I ve noticed that the writer is using such easy diction and funny expessions, as the same time, I approach that novel as a clear personal view which reflect and associat what is personal to general..
    I recommend this novel to be well treated, and attentively read

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