Gerard Donovan’s 2006 novel, Julius Winsome, is to my mind one of the great short novels – a perfectly formed little masterpiece. A novel about beauty and loneliness, it’s also, due to Donovan’s masterful skill, a novel whose true nature creeps up on you, almost without you noticing. It’s like a Chekhov story with a touch of Stephen King-like malevolence.
The story is told by the eponymous narrator, who lives alone in the Maine woods, and opens as he discovers the body of his beloved dog, Hobbes. Suspecting that Hobbes’ death, at the hands of one of the woods frequent hunters, was not an accident, he starts to go after the hunters. As he does so, Julius’ stunning first person narrative reveals complex truths about him and his past.
The novel was well received, and even short listed for the Kerry Group Prize for fiction in Ireland, but its sales, in the UK particularly, were tough. As an editor and publisher, it’s these types of books – ones that are so genuinely beloved by people everyone you know who has read it – that are so tough to see struggle. Interestingly in late 2009 it was published by Random House in Germany, on their crime list and under a different title, Winter in Maine, and was hugely successful. We even saw a strong uplift in sales in our European markets on the back of it.
It remains though one of those books that I just wish more people could discover. As Michel Faber, who reviewed it for the Guardian on first publication, said: ‘it is a memorable tale, distinguished by masterful prose, an intriguingly peculiar sensibility and something harder to define that many great works of art have: a kind of dignity. Such books are rarer than publishers’ hype encourage us to believe.’