Winter's Bone - Daniel Woodrell 3 – 3.5 stars

I think I may have come to this book with excessive expectations given the consistently high ratings and voluminous praise in GR friends’ reviews. That’s not to say that this was a bad book, or that I didn’t enjoy it, but for me this book didn’t hit the sweet spot that it seemed to reach for most others.

Ree Dolly is a tough-as-nails adolescent living a hand-to-mouth existence in perhaps the worst possible conditions in the backwoods of the Ozarks, forced to care for her two younger brothers and mentally ill mother. Her father, a meth cook who’s gone missing and who has put up their house as part of his bond, provides the impetus for the plot and propels Ree into a world of suspicious kin, underworld honour, and ever-present danger. She’s got gumption, this girl, that’s for sure, but I don’t know if I’d say she “kicks ass” the way most reviewers do. I’d say she knows how to take a licking and keep on ticking. She’s also headstrong as a bull and won’t let anything, or anyone, stand in her way, no matter how intimidating. There’s a lot to love about Ree: her undying love for her family and fierce devotion to them regardless of her dreams to escape from what she knows is a dead-end life; her refusal to let others tell her when she needs to give up and let ‘what has to be’ shut her down; her willingness to make any personal sacrifice when it will better the case of others in her life. Other characters are also vividly drawn even if they only appear briefly in the story: Uncle Teardrop springs to mind, a man who is both exactly what he seems and something more; Sherriff Baskin, a lawman who straddles the uncomfortable line between the official and criminal worlds that seems to be endemic of places like the Ozark backwoods of tightly-knit outlaw families; the vicious loyalty and twisted sense of honour of Merab Milton and her sisters; the playful, but tragic innocence of Ree’s brothers Sonny and Harold.

Still, all that said I found myself not really finding myself fully pulled into the story until the final third of the book. Prior to that there’s a lot of wandering amongst the backwoods and remembering of times past mingled with fears of times to come as Ree searches for her father, but it’s not until things start coming to a head that I really found myself compelled by the story. Add to that Woodrell’s over-wrought prose and things stayed at a ‘good but not great’ level for the most part for me. I mean, I’m as much of a fan of poetic prose as the next guy (probably even more so given who the next guy is likely to be), but I still winced at a fair number of Woodrell’s metaphors, and his overblown (and sometimes confusing) descriptions of nature sort of reminded me of some of the Romantics at their most over-heated and excessive. Woodrell is by no means a bad writer, but I do think his prose would have benefitted by being turned down a notch or two from time to time, if only to let those high-flown metaphors that did work shine all the more.

Still, a very good read. Hick-lit noir that generally delivers on its promise.