Winter Willow: A Novel by Deborah-Anne Tunney


In January 1976, a student named Melanie is dawdling her way through a PhD in English at a Canadian university. She has been researching her thesis for so long that her scholarship funding has run out, and since then has been supporting herself as a writing advisor. But her money situation, already tight, becomes more so when, at a departmental meeting, she learns that budget reductions are forcing the immediate elimination of the writing assistance program, cutting off her only source of income.  

Melanie is in mourning for her mother, dead less than a year, and, since her father was never in the picture, she suddenly finds herself alone in the world pondering an uncertain future. Her mother worked an office job while raising Melanie on her own. They lived modestly in a small apartment. Melanie doesn’t have much and claims that being poor suits her.  

“The story’s eerie and atmospheric setting is exploited to stunning effect.”

But her predicament compels her to consider practical needs, and through a fortuitous series of events she encounters an elderly man named Stone Shackelford, a writer, celebrated fifty years earlier for his novel The Uninvited, a “tale of loss and regret” which Melanie recalls having read while in her teens. Stone lives in a huge old mansion called Winter Willow, rattling about the place on his own except for a housekeeper named Celeste. In need of an assistant to sort his papers, answer correspondence and arrange his books, Stone offers Melanie employment, and despite some misgivings she accepts. 

The remainder of Deborah Anne Tunney’s gripping debut novel chronicles Melanie’s time in residence at Winter Willow during that fateful winter of 1976, in the company of a secretive writer approaching the end of his life who is troubled by and obsessed with the past, and his prickly, overly protective housekeeper. The weather that winter is poor, the city pummelled by storms that follow quickly one upon the other. Melanie is mystified and occasionally alarmed by Stone’s behaviour toward her—by turns generous and possessive—which seems to shift according to volatile and unpredictable mood swings. Oppressed by the weight of the mansion’s long history and the Shackelford family’s tragic past, her work on her thesis slows as she finds it more and more difficult to concentrate. Then she meets another grad student, Martin, and they embark upon a relationship. Eventually Melanie sees that her presence at Winter Willow is disruptive and unhelpful, that just by being there she is threatening a delicate balance that’s been decades in the making, and with Martin waiting in the wings she decides to move out.  

Melanie is a ruminative narrator and the writing throughout the novel is cinematic in its attention to detail, the mystery at its heart compelling. The story’s eerie and atmospheric setting is exploited to stunning effect. Winter Willow, brief as it is, seems to embrace an encyclopaedic range of human emotion and experience. But its concision is one of its greatest strengths, because at the end we are wishing for it to be longer. And isn’t that precisely the reader response that every author hopes for?  

About the author: At night and while working full time, Deborah-Anne Tunney attended Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, earning degrees in English Literature and Language. She also studied at the Humber School for Writers where she was awarded a letter of distinction and was chosen by them to receive the centennial scholarship for most promising writer from the Heliconian Club. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Canadian, American and U.K. journals, notably the Missouri Review, Narrative, Grain, Fiddlehead, among others. A story originally published in Narrative was translated into Arabic. Her poetry has also appeared in Canadian and American anthologies. In 2014 her book of linked short stories, The View from the Lane, was published by Great Plains Publication. The winner of the 2018 Diana Brebner award for poetry, she resides in Ottawa with her husband and three cats.

  • Winter Willow: Stories by Deborah-Anne Tunney
  • Paperback : 200 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1773370251
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1773370255
  • Publisher : Enfield & Wizenty (Nov. 30 2019)

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Ian Colford’s short fiction has appeared in Event, Grain, Riddle Fence, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead and other literary publications. His previous books are Evidence, The Crimes of Hector Tomás, Perfect World and The Dark House and Other Stories. His work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Relit Award, the Journey Prize, and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. He lives in Halifax.

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