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Review: The Death of Donna Whalen, by Michael Winter

Michael Winter

JENNIFER ROBERTS/TheGlobe and Mail

Death is not an event, comments Dr. Philip Abery, a forensic pathologist giving court testimony in The Death of Donna Whalen. It is a process. This remark feels especially pertinent coming at the point it does in this extraordinary novel - deep in the thickets of an arduous courtroom trial in which conflicting, contradictory voices take turns examining, expounding upon and obfuscating the facts of one woman's violent demise. During the trial of Donna Whalen's accused killer, her death, death as an intimate, physical process, is examined in the most heart-wrenching detail, but the murder itself has become an event in the fairgrounds sense of the word: Come one, come all. And they do.

In his foreword to this work of "documentary fiction," as he dubs it, Michael Winter references Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, describing how the accumulating voices surrounding Donna Whalen's murder - voices he accessed via court transcripts and other legal documents - captivated him; first, as a reader and then eventually as the story's re-teller. The characters inhabiting this found narrative burgeoned with such distinctive and resonant personalities that not even the bureaucratic context in which Winter first encountered them - the legalistic tedium of courtroom testimony; the inevitable incoherence of wiretapped conversation - could tamp them down. (The real-life inspiration for the book is the 1993 murder of Brenda Young. Randy Druken was convicted for the murder based on the testimony of a jailhouse informant, who eventually recanted. Druken served six years and was then exonerated, being awarded more than $2-million in compensation by the Newfoundland government for the wrongful conviction.)





Winter adds that the "intentional deception" behind some of these voices, their hidden biases and outright mistakes, also put him in mind of William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying. He further name-checks Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, explaining: "I needed these previous examples of unconventional storytelling to assure me there was something accumulating here, a wedge into the human condition that was truer and more vivid than what I could fabricate."

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Of course, Michael Winter is no stranger to unconventional storytelling. His previous works of "fiction" have overtly played fast and loose with the genre - and I do mean "played" in the most exuberant sense of the word. There is nothing coy, for example, about the title of his novel This All Happened.

But as "documentary fiction" - an essentially true story with changed names - The Death of Donna Whalen is markedly different from Winter's previous outings. First, it's the only time he has explicitly acknowledged the interplay of truth and fiction in his work. It is his first novel to have a foreword, explaining and laying out his intent in advance of the story, in addition to an epilogue that zooms out from the clamouring first-person perspectives to provide the reader with a (much needed) overview of the grisly subject at hand: the investigation into Donna Whalen's death, the subsequent trial of her boyfriend and everything that has transpired since.

The overall effect is a feeling that Winter is being very careful, and not in the way he usually is (that is, with his language, as in the care he typically takes in the perfection of a breathtaking turn of phrase. Strictly speaking, it's not Michael Winter who is crafting the sentences this time). His respect for the "characters" who have given him his story and lent him their voices feels enormous and the burden of his awareness of Donna Whalen as a real human being who lived, was loved by many and died horrifically, brings an entirely new kind of Michael Winter to the page.

The adjective I would have chosen previously to describe Winter's style is "expansive." Here, however, he has produced a novel that feels in some ways like moving through a tunnel - narrow, focused, deliberate while at the same time gloomy in the literal and figurative senses of the word. The deeper you go into The Death of Donna Whalen, as one character's divergent, often self-contradictory perspective is layered on top of another's, the more obscured your vision becomes. The incontrovertible shock of the murder itself dissolves into something less certain and tangible - a genuine murder mystery.

Donna's boyfriend, Sheldon Troke, seems the obvious suspect. Indeed, late in Troke's trial, the Crown prosecutor makes this very point, as if it adds up to some kind of procedural masterstroke: If not Sheldon, who? He is the boyfriend, drunken, violent - a petty criminal. And one of his past crimes involved, as with Donna's awful death, a knife. Open and shut.

And yet, Sheldon and Donna's boisterous arguments were legendary throughout the neighbourhood: Sheldon was a bellower, a thrower of objects and puncher of walls. Donna had the Vivian family living below her; the Edicotts next door, the walls and floors of the building like cardboard, yet somehow her murder goes virtually unheard. The police remark when they are downstairs questioning Ruth Vivian that they can hear their photographers in Donna's apartment above them rewinding their film - how can a woman be stabbed as many as 30 times and not even cry out?

There are other discrepancies. Ruth Vivian's testimony veers dramatically in Sheldon's disfavour after her son, Tom - a shoplifting buddy of Donna's - is fingered as a possible suspect. There is the mysterious blond man who police dismiss as a red herring, yet who appears in more than one witness account. Most wrenchingly, there is the testimony of 10-year-old Sharon Whalen, in the next room and half-asleep when her mother was being butchered, and resolutely unable to identify the male voice she thinks she might have heard, let alone whose name (Sheldon? Sharon?) she thinks her mother might have called that night.

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Undoubtedly, it was the humbling authenticity of voices like these - the innocent clarity of Sharon Whalen, the befuddled yet ardent (and occasionally inspiring) protestations of innocence from Sheldon Troke - that led Winter to the conviction he must not interfere with them; to make himself, instead, a kind of creative curator. It's a bold approach from top to bottom. For a fabulist of Winter's gifts, it shows amazing faith in the power of story itself, the sheer ability of raw human character to transfix us. In stepping back from centre stage and turning the spotlight entirely on this devastating array of intersecting lives and deaths, Winter has enacted some of the most powerful storytelling of his career.

Lynn Coady is the award-winning author of the novels Strange Heaven and Mean Boy, and writes the Group Therapy column for The Globe and Mail.

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