Archive for the ‘Ridgway, Keith (2)’ Category

Hawthorn & Child, by Keith Ridgway

January 19, 2013

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.


The Long Falling, by Keith Ridgway

January 18, 2011

Purchased from

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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