Hawthorn & Child, by Keith Ridgway

Purchased from the Book Depository

Purchased from the Book Depository

It doesn’t happen often, but it occurs sometimes. I finish a novel, close the cover for the last time, and have only one conclusion: “Well, I sure didn’t get that one.” Hawthorn & Child is the latest to join that thankfully quite short list.

Keith Ridgway’s 2012 novel attracted very positive attention from bloggers whom I respect — John Self at The Asylum and Will Rycroft at Just William’s Luck both had it on their end-of-year best lists. As did Booker Prize chairman Peter Stothard, although it failed to make the Booker longlist. So it obviously has substantial appeal to some.

I started it during the summer but set it aside after a few score pages — the experience was more frustrating than anything else and I put it down to my reading mood. Now that I have read the entire novel, I have much the same response. It is a novel that is told in semi-linked episodes, with both characters and events that occasionally overlap. And while the episodes are just fine in the way they establish a story, none of them have much of an ending — and for this reader the parts never came together as a whole.

The novel opens with a promising first chapter. Hawthorn and Child are North London policemen and they are on their way to an incident. The radio is feeding them short, calm bursts of information — this excerpt illustrates the mix of dialogue and narrative that will permeate the book:

Their pattern [the radio bursts] indicated some sort of emergency, declared, somewhere or other.

– What? he asked the radio.

Child said something that he couldn’t hear. The streets were deserted. What time was it? There was next to no traffic. Why was the siren on? He switched it off.

– Someone needs to do bad before we can do good.

– Shot fired. That it?

– One male injured. Local unit just arrived. Ambulance arrived. Shot fired from car. Armed response imminent. Rivers raised from his bed. All hands on deck! Scramble! Scramble!

Child was cackling at the footpaths, leering at the kerbs.

– Finally, we get to do something other than sit on our arses.

The two head from the scene to the hospital to interview the victim. He thinks he remembers being shot from an old car, “vintage” not “old banger”, perhaps even a Rolls. This episode is one of the longest in the book, at 57 pages, and by the end we still don’t know if the car is real or imagined — that perplexity is the resolution.

There is a reference to Helen Mirren (of Prime Suspect fame) in the chapter and perhaps that is what set my reading off on the wrong course. While I am not a reader of British crime fiction, Mrs. KfC and I love the television versions. And, as Hawthorn & Child moved on to other incidents, I couldn’t help thinking: this is like loading a Rebus DVD, watching the first few scenes that set up the crime and quandary, and then pulling it out, loading a disc of Frost, doing the same thing and then moving on to some opening scenes from a Morse. Okay, I’m spoiled: as much as I appreciate the construction of a good crime story, I’ve come to expect some sort of resolution. Ridgway resolutely refuses to supply any, which is perhaps the purpose of the book.

The two cops feature in most of the stories, sometimes as central characters, but often on the periphery. The author’s interest is the confusing, baffling, incomplete world that might — or might not — involve crime in North London. Given that there are a lot of crimes that don’t get solved, in one sense that makes this high realism. Perhaps mystery novelists and video crime series creators have created an unreal world where the overwhelming majority get resolved.

“Rothko Eggs” was my favorite chapter and offers a useful metaphor for my ambivalent response to the book. Cath is a student who likes art (Frida Kahlo, Francis Bacon and Jackson Pollock, yes; Damien Hirst, no). She has a grid of art postcards (thirty eight in seven rows of five, a row-in-progress of three), most sent to her by her dad. The “mystery” thrust of this chapter is tension between Cath’s parents, but that lies below the surface — the bulk of the story concerns Cath’s interest in art and her boyfriend Stuart, who might be gay although she and he have had “sort-of-sex”.

Two paintings in the Tate Rothko Room

Two paintings in the Tate Rothko Room

Ridgway sets up the art story very well:

There were some artists that she couldn’t really understand. She could see that they had left her lots of space, but she didn’t know what to fill it with. Sometimes, if they were not very well known or respected artists she decided that they just weren’t very good — that they were faking it and they didn’t know what they were doing really. But if they were famous and supposed to be amazing then they just made her feel stupid.

Stuart is more into film than art (his room features posters from Watchmen, Superbad and Finding Nemo), but he does make clumsy attempts to keep up with Cath’s art interests. She persuades him to come with her to the Rothko Room at Tate Modern because:

She didn’t know what to do about Rothko. She didn’t understand Rothko. Everything about Rothko made her want to like him. All the things people who liked him said and wrote made her want to like him.

I love the Tate Rothko collection, which I first saw at the gallery that is now Tate Britain and have visited several times since it was moved to Tate Modern. I could sit for hours looking at the nine mural paintings that were commissioned for the Seagram Four Seasons in New York, but ended up at the Tate because they obviously were simply too good for a dining room, however classy. Here’s how Ridgway captures Cath and Stuart’s experience:

She had told Stuart about Rothko, a little. How he did not move her. And he had wanted to see. He said he knew a song about Rothko by an American singer that he liked. She rolled her eyes. The only things he knew about were things he’d heard in songs. He laughed at her.

They looked at the paintings. The room was almost empty. Large flat blocks of colour frayed at the edges, set against the dark. It was gloomy in there. Why was it so gloomy? It was cool, at least. Cath sat on a bench and tried again with Rothko. Stuart stood at first. Then he sat beside her for a while. They didn’t say anything. She wanted to let him decide for himself. He stood up again and walked around the room. Then he stopped in front of one of them and his head dropped to his chest. Then she saw him wipe his eyes and look up again. She thought he was bored. He didn’t get it either. She stood and went to him and took his hand, meaning to lead him out of the room so they could look at some other stuff or get a coffee. He turned to her. He was crying. Not sobbing. But there were a couple of tears running down the side of his nose, and his eyes were red. She stared at him.

I’ve sat immersed for extended periods in the Tate Rothko Room as people circled it in 90 seconds or so and quickly left, undoubtedly thinking “anyone could do that”, and understood why paintings that hold so much appeal to me simply do not affect others. I’ll have to admit, therefore, that Ridgway is my version of Cath’s Rothko — as much as I know that others like him for good reason and as much as I want to like him, I just don’t get him. Better that I should move on to the next gallery (or, in this case, book) and hope for a more satisfying result.

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8 Responses to “Hawthorn & Child, by Keith Ridgway”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I love the Rothko room too, though sadly I’ve never had the “profound experience of art” (to quote Ben Lerner for a second) that Stuart has there.

    This has never sounded to me like a crime novel, and therefore I’ve never expected resolution from it. It sounds like it’s lucky those are my expectations. Otherwise, you have reminded me that I’m now I think officially the last book blogger in Christendom not to have read this. I should correct that, particularly as I rather like fiction which plays with ambiguity and reader discomfort.

    A shame you didn’t like it more Kevin, but however good (or not) any author may be there always must be that chemistry between book and reader, and where it’s lacking no amount of wanting to like a book can make us do so. Better luck next read.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I did not mean to imply that it purports to be a crime novel, because it doesn’t — but those elements (at least in the set up) are common to most episodes in the novel. Overall, for me, it was a collection of various kinds of uncertainties that, instead of sparking curiosity and thought on my part, merely left me moving on to the next one. That’s why the Rothko metaphor came to mind — I can’t really explain why I can spend hours looking at one of his paintings when some others (like Bacon, in my case) don’t do much for me at all, even if I can see why they have such a reputation.

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        My bad phrasing Kevin, I didn’t imagine you’d made that particular error. I was commenting more on the expectations I have of it, which your review confirms.

        There are works, artists, who simply don’t reach us even if we can see their talent. Elvis for me, which is probably a shame given I’ve got a copy of the Simon Crump novel to review.

        Anyway, I’ll bump it up the queue and hope that I enjoy it more.

    • kimbofo Says:

      No, Max, you’re not the last… ;-)

  2. John Self Says:

    I’m delighted to read your thoughtful response to the book, Kevin. Since I started going on about it (more than six months ago now!), I’ve been surprised that there haven’t been more ambivalent responses, though there have been some, of course. Your review sums up what I expected more people to think (and perhaps more do, and they just don’t mention it).

    All I can say, without any desire to sway you, is that I’ve now read the book three times, and I definitely feel I didn’t “get it” (as you put it) until the second reading. Of course, I did like it enough the first time to read it again… I also found interviews with Ridgway enlightening (because, for sure, it’s not a straightforward novel, though each individual section I think is accessible and gripping) – though, again, I wouldn’t have wanted to read the interviews if the book hadn’t intrigued me enough. In one interview, Ridgway makes the reverse observation that you do above: that he likes crime novels except for the resolutions.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I am not surprised by that last statement — it is apparent that Ridgway likes the idea of sketching the puzzle (and even in that prefers to leave some missing pieces) without concluding by putting it together. In the chapters that did engage my interest (like the Rothko one), I found that just fine and enjoyed “completing” the story in my own mind. Unfortunately in most, I found myself struggling to make contact with what was going on.

      Given that it took my two tries to get through the novel a first time, I don’t think it likely that I’ll read it again soon. Then again, it may be one of those “disparate incident” novels where some of the parts grow in memory and demand a revisit.

  3. leroyhunter Says:

    Interesting to read your thoughts Kevin. I’m one of those in “substantial appeal” camp on this one.

    I know you are fond of “novels of place” – did you get a sense of London as a unifying strand across the stories?

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I did not get a “sense of place” in most of the episodes — and that was probably my greatest unmet expectation with the novel. (That also probably explains my liking of the Rothko chapter, since it does establish the Tait Modern as part of the story.) What did land with more effect was Ridgway’s use of a wide range of characters, most of whom appear only for a single chapter. If I do read it again, I’ll pay more attention to that.

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