The Long Falling, by Keith Ridgway

Purchased from Chapters.ca

There is a fictional stream that Irish novelists do better than any other: The guilt — and reaction to it — of a mother who has been overwhelmed by both the politics and the misogyny that defines her life. I am not even going to try to cite examples (okay, check out my reviews of John McGahern’s excellent novels) but it is a strain of fiction that has its appeal for me and Keith Ridgway’s overlooked novel, The Long Falling, deserves attention.

Grace Quinn, the aging central character of the novel, is not even Irish — she’s English and has moved to Ireland as a result of her marriage. I don’t want to give too much away but her husband is abusive (have we seen that before?), she lost a child in an “accident” (which remains ambiguous — her husband accuses her of “killing” the wrong son) and the conflict that preoccupies her as the novel opens is her surviving son’s homosexuality, which her husband simply cannot accept — there is a great passage on how he insists on describing his son as “queer” not “gay”. That confrontation will prove to be Grace’s tipping point in her creation of her own future.

Grace Quinn rumbles by the church in her husband’s small red car, which is old and ragged, with rust at its edges. She glances at the grey stone bell-tower, but there is nothing in her look, it is just an accidental thing, careless. It has become her habit not to see the place where her son is kept.

She is past the church and out past the mart, turning off the Shercock road at the signpost to Ballybay. The road home from Cootehill. Crossing the Monaghan border somewhere there amongst the hill and the lakes.

It used to be that she would only cycle this road, but then she learned how to drive, and realised for the first time how bad it was. Riddled with holes, pock-marked like the land it ran through, corrupted with humps and troughs and sudden bends, impossibly sharp. For years, she had heard others complain, heard whole radio shows devoted to the potholes of Cavan and Monoghan, and she had never really understood what it was all about. On a bike, you pick your own way. On foot it does not matter. But now she knew.

That is a longish quote but it does capture what makes Ridgway special. His plot may have a lot of antecedents, but he uses it to make some cryptic observations that add both depth and challenge to his book. She used to be a walker and a cyclist but Grace will use that car, virtually as a weapon, in the first part of the novel — the story that unfolds will be about what happens after that.

I don’t want to give away the plot (and I won’t) but this is a story of the relationship between mothers and sons — albeit one that requires some licence from the reader as it unfolds. Grace’s gay son, Martin, is facing his own issues as the story develops (his partner is in Paris and Martin has major fidelity concerns which may or may not be legitimate). The arrival of his mother brings a far more dramatic element to his world but it is one that he cannot accept, so he simply shuts it down. Indeed, the strength of this novel is the exploration of how Martin avoids facing the reality of his past — and the dramatic present that his mother has created.

Ridgway locates this dilemma in contemporary Dublin. Grace flees there and enters her son’s world; it is not one that she knows, but she adapts quickly (another entirely worthwhile sub-theme in the novel). Martin, meanwhile, ignores everything that her arrival implies.

Her eyes caught his and he was suddenly aware of her, definitely, without question, as the same woman he had walked with as a boy. The strength was back. The secret that he knew but could not explain, even to himself. She stared at him and he was startled by memory. His father. The smell of his father. The feel of the air on their faces as they ran. Her laugh. The lap of the water. Swimming the lake in summer, hiding a whole life from his father. His father and the things he said to her. His hands.

The Long Falling is about hiding, and the price that we pay for that hiding. The central story line of the plot has all the elements of a thriller (and quite a good one) but Ridgway’s achievement is to examine, question and explore what price individuals pay when they indulge in that kind of hiding. Yes, it makes things easier in the short term — but it also builds a debt that will inevitably be called in. The pain of that calling in is vivid in this novel.

As I said earlier, the Irish do this extremely well — and if you like Sebastian Barry, John McGahern, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Colm Toibin and a number of others (and isn’t that a long list?), this novel will suit your taste very well. On the other hand, if you find those explorations gloomy and annoying, you might want to look somewhere else. I love the way that Irish novelists parse these elements, so it is no surprise that I highly recommend this novel.

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8 Responses to “The Long Falling, by Keith Ridgway”

  1. KevinfromCanada Says:

    An oversight on my part — I meant to acknowledge that John Self at the Asylum was the blogger who put me on to Ridgway. JS has reviewed three of Ridgway’s novels here.

  2. Guy Savage Says:

    I like the quotes a lot, Kevin. As I read the review, I kept asking where I’d heard the author’s name before. Perhaps it was JS’s blog.

    What is the year (approx) setting?

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: They are longer quotes than normal for me — Ridgway has a rhythm to his prose that I think is important and I hope the quotes show that. One of the strengths of the book for me was the consistent voice that he maintained throughout — it made some of the dramatic developments even more poignant.

    The novel was published in 1998 and I would call it contemporary (there are some specific references that would date it more exactly, but I am not that up on events in Ireland in the last couple decades so I will need help on that front). I’d say the “background” is more Celtic Tiger than the “traditional” Irish conflict — which in itself is interesting since Grace’s fate is pretty much the same in the modern context as it would be in the older conflict.

    If you recognize Ridgway’s name, I am pretty sure it is from John’s blog. He adopted this book as a bit of a cause last year (although it should be noted he had reviewed the other two earlier).

  4. leroyhunter Says:

    On the basis of the review I’m definitely interested Kevin. Like Guy I think it’s the quotes that do it. I’m not really a fan of the writers you list but the McGahern link is one that is always going to appeal to me.

    I think John has mentioned in his reviews that Ridgway doesn’t get the attention at home that he deserves. Thinking on that it’s probably true of him and some of his contemporaries as well – I recall Paul Murray getting a much higher profile in British media at Booker time then in Irish – although there seemed to be a widespread adoption of Emma Donoghue by contrast. Who knows? Maybe it’s just luck, and by no means do I read all the possible sources of coverage. It’s a strong impression though.

  5. John Self Says:

    An interesting point, leroyhunter. I suppose when I said he didn’t get the attention he deserved, I meant in the UK as well as Ireland. But even that’s not strictly true, as all his books have been enthusiastically reviewed in the press. If you look at the quotes from the reviews (click on any of the book covers on his agent’s website), most writers would kill for coverage like that. How many writers get compared to Jeffrey Eugenides, Don DeLillo, Aleksandr Hemo and Zadie Smith in the same breath? But, frustratingly for those of us who believe him to be a significant talent, the praise has never translated into healthy sales.

    Anyway it’s always good to see more praise for Ridgway, so I’m delighted you liked the book, Kevin. Where I think he is particularly interesting is in his protean nature as a writer. While this book and Horses (his first publication, a novella) have clear antecedents in the Irish literary tradition, his later novels The Parts and Animals are very different beasts. I hesitate to use the word ‘experimental’ as the prose is always effortlessly readable, but certainly Animals is a frankly unsettling and original production. The Parts I haven’t read, but am told it’s a multi-voiced, ambitious work.

    I seem to recall that I extrapolated the date of setting for The Long Falling to 1992 or 1993, based on the ‘X’ case regarding abortion rights, which features prominently in the book.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    What I found distinctive about Ridgway in this book is the way he uses style to create a sense of tension (and often urgency) among his characters. It comes from short, direct sentences with a minimum of distracting adverbs and adjectives — sentence fragments are another frequent feature. The plot of the book is unsettling enough but for me this prose technique made it even more compelling.

  7. kimbofo Says:

    I read Ridgway’s Horses last year and loved it. It was a novella highly reminiscent of John McGahern’s best work, so I would love it, wouldn’t I? I’ve had the rest of Ridgway’s back catalogue in my sights ever since, so thanks to this review I’ll be getting hold of The Long Falling very soon.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I think you will find this novel also brings back McGahern memories. I too intend to explore Ridgway’s back catalogue. I am intrigued at how his distinctive style will translate.

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