Michael Winter’s “The Death of Donna Whalen”

Posted: October 16, 2010 in Dark Art Cafe
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 Perhaps this short video is too funny to begin any sort of discussion on Michael Winter’s dark new “novel” The Death of Donna Whalen, but there is something serious in this playful clip about “cutting” a manuscript that pertains to the massive editorial undertaking behind this slim work of documentary fiction.

Winter may not take a literal chainsaw to his work (or he may, who knows) but he is, of his own admission, a ruthless editor of his own work. In his new novel, however, he is not author/editor but editor/curator: The Death of Donna Whalen being the result of pairing down and artfully arranging a stack of court transcripts, wire-taps, and police interviews that stood over five feet high. A true story with a heck of a paper trail. Winter’s claim is to have written hardly any of his own words, opting, rather, to play literary curator to real voices and actual testimonies.

Steven J. Beattie reviewed the novel in The Walrus and said the many voices in it, most written in heavy Newfoundland accents, were at first confusing but became more familiar as he progressed: mirroring the experience of detective Gary Bemister in the story. I don’t know if it is the fact that I live in St. John’s ( a few streets away from where the actual murder took place) but I was drawn in immediately by the cadence of Sheldon Troke’s voice, Donna Whalen’s boyfriend accused of her muder, as well as the voices of Donna’s neighbours, the shady RNC officers, Sheldon’s shifty brother, and the children left motherless by the murder.

I read the book at the end of August with my windows open in the evenings, hearing voices on my street as violent, hilarious, broken and real as those in Winter’s novel. I felt at times like the world of the book and the world outside my window were one and the same, and not just because the literal geography is the same. (Donna Whalen would have walked up my street on her way to the grocery store or downtown). This effect could only come from a novel, I think: the paradoxical sparcity of the prose and its provocative punch, its artful arrangment of reality – Winter’s trademarks to be sure. A five foot stack of court documents may have captured Winter’s attention as a writer but they would be dead words to me, as a reader. So, it is the effect of the work – the fact that I felt I was hearing real voices moreso than reading their words transcribed – that struck me as the novel’s great strength.

Winter masterfully arranges testimonies so they play off each other and clash, disorienting you to the point where you have to question what the truth is, or who is telling the truth. At times you will think you know, like Gary Bemister, the detective, and at times you will feel unhinged, like Donna’s neighbour undergoing a mental breakdown, bringing her whole testimony under scrutiny. Throughout you will be blindsided by conflicting accounts, you will feel betrayed: and if you give this difficult book the time it deserves you will feel the closeness of the tragedy sharp as a knife, scarring as a cigarette burn.

This book is wild, unruly, terrifying, and utterly human. 

It stands with Winter’s other works in that it is written in his style – sharp austere prose ruthlessly evoking the real – but The Death of Donna Whalen stands apart from his previous works of fiction in that he, as an author, is almost completely absent from its pages. This leaves the narrative colder in tone than his Gabriel English novels, but this chill is another calculated effect of the story. It is both the sign of Winter’s respect for the true people he has written about and also the novel’s great gift: gritty empathy. Winter does not give us redemption but he does make us feel for those involved. Coming to realize this was like feeling Winter’s hand on my shoulder for the first time 300 pages, and I have to admit, it was a comfort after reading about all that went down in this city over a decade ago.


For other things Winter-ized check out Shedding Some Ink on Michael Winter, a blog post on Salty Ink that includes an interesting little interview with MW by Chad Pelley. And also this You-Tube clip of Winter talking about the writing process.

  1. Steph says:

    Excellent review, Sam. I tweeted it!

  2. […] can also read my longer review of Winter’s novel on my […]

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