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.