Saturday, 24 November 2012

Hawthorn and Child

Hawthorn and Child - Keith Ridgway

"The city rushed past them like words on a screen, and he would have read them but they went too fast."

Regular readers will possibly remember that I recently undertook a course in reading and writing fiction with Keith Ridgway. I have read his earlier novel The Parts and enjoyed it but it was really the synchronicity of seeing some glowing reviews for Hawthorn and Child and a friend sharing the course on Facebook that led me to take the course. And I'm very glad I did. It gave me push to complete a draft of a short story and some other short pieces of fiction. I hope to hammer the short story into something approaching a finished form by years end, completing one of my resolutions for the year. It's just finding time to write that is difficult, (or is that making time?), a form of alchemy I rarely master unless it is to no useful purpose.

Anyway, back to Hawthorn and Child. First, the title. It brings old tales to mind, tales of fairies stealing children and taking them to a magical land beneath an old hawthorn tree. This book encompasses fantasy, includes space for the unexplainable - perhaps hinting that all is finally unexplainable. Maybe this isn't the real novel but one that the little people left in its place.

Hawthorn and Child are two policemen working in London. They are called to the scene of a shooting and, like all good policemen, they take notes. Parallels between these notes and the novel are often made clear. Interviews with the victim point towards the shots having come from an old fashioned black car with side runners. Images of Al Capone flash to mind. This seems incongruous, like the invisible gorilla. However, it was seen but we are left to wonder if it was possible, as CCTV doesn't seem to have picked it up, or has it? And anyway, this case is a distraction from their main focus, tracking down a shadowy figure called Mishazzo.

This novel doesn't trade in certainties. It is as if Ridgeway has imagined a giant police procedural cum fantasy and then started to elide most of the narrative lines until we are left to join the dots. Is this a case that we can solve? Having imagined the giant novel now unimagine it and visualise the space between things as the starting point of the novel, with the events only there to highlight this emptiness.

The novel is broken into sections which are, in themselves discreet. It would not be much of a stretch to call it a book of short stories. In fact, lets do so. Keith Ridgway's new collection of short stories, Hawthorn and Child includes the stories 1934; Goo Book; How To Have Fun With A Fat Man; How We Ran The Night; Rothko Eggs; Marching Songs; The Association of Christ Sejunct and The Referee. Would this change the readers experience of the book? Perhaps. It would be like a booklet of smaller join the dots pictures rather than one huge one. We might think less of how each section acts upon the ones before it, and after. Ok then, I'll go back to calling it a novel. One with multiple narrators and perspectives and whose sections have uncertain relationships to each other.

One of the things that Ridgway does with this is question our view of character. How much do we need to know? How important is someones ethnicity or sexuality? Do we expect this information up front, highlighted, or just as an aside late in the book? I felt that the book played around with these ideas in interesting ways. It seems to fire questions back into the middle of our own assumptions. We place a lot of emphasis on the details we know, but those we don't know are at least as important.

In one of the chapter/stories two unnamed characters communicate their deepest feelings towards each other in a notebook which they leave lying around for the other to read. Writing itself is clearly the central theme of this book, but never in a static, academic way. "They couldn't talk. They were not good talkers, either of them. And once, long ago now, she had bought a notebook for a course. It lay empty and forgotten on the kitchen table until one afternoon, when she had gone to the shops and he was worried that she would be killed by a bus or by lightning, he opened the notebook and he wrote lines about how he loved her, the way he loved her, about his fucking heart and crap like that, about his body brimful and his scrambled head."

Later he loses the release the notebook offers when complications lead to further categories of thoughts, some of which are not communicable. He becomes involved with Mishazzo as a driver and with Hawthorn as something more than an informer. This web of intrigue means that he has to become hyper-aware of what he tells who. "He didn't tell them about trying to think of things to write in the book, or how most of the things he thought of were things he would never write. His mind was dividing. `parts of it were roped off. There were things he could say. There were things he could not say but could write in the book. And now there were things he could neither say nor write but only think, and they pressed up against the others like they wanted a fight."

One of the narrative voices is a book editor. This allows the idea of writing to be approached even more directly - "I read stories all day long. All week long. I read them. I hear them. I listen to stories and plots and fictions. I weigh characters in my hand like I am buying fruit. I purse my lips and roll my head on my shoulders and I suggest this and that.  It might make more sense if you did this. It would be more believable, the character would be more sympathetic, the story would flow better, the loose ends would be tied up if you did this or that or the other." This is a book that doesn't take this advice, a book that wrestles with the fact that life is not a simple narrative, nor the world a book which we can read.

As he comes apart at the seams he falls into his workaday thought patterns and his life becomes like the construction of a fictional life. "All I am doing is comparing my own set of misunderstandings to the misunderstandings of others. All I am doing is wishing that I were not what I am. All I am doing is constructing a story that might be told about me when I have given up hearing the stories of others."

In one chapter we are in the head of a teenage girl, with a teenagers uncertainty and bluster, the cauldron in which opinions are formed. A long passage deals with her thoughts on art. "She didn't like realism very much really, because usually there was no room in it." This is a book with plenty of room in it. That room can at times become empty space over which we walk on an incomplete tightrope. There is despair here but light too, and a sense that it is in the unknowableness of the universe that redemption lies. Case not closed.

P.S. One wonders if Keith Ridgeway has been in comntact with Pope Benedict. The penultimate chapter/story The Association of Christ Sejunct is named for a group who "keep alive in our hearts and in our daily lives , with an honest strength and an honest weakness, the solemn consideration of the sublime figure of Jesus our Saviour and Balm, in the years during which he is seperated from our knowledge of him - from his circumcision to the age, by The Gospel of Luke, of twelve, when he attends to and questions the teachers in the Temple" Once again of course, the unknowable is given precedence over the known.
The Popes new book is called “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.” I kid you not.


  1. "a sense that it is in the unknowableness of the universe that redemption lies" - lovely! sounds like a very different kind of detective novel that leaves one with plenty to consider

    1. Yes, it strays far from the template, opening out rather than closing in. And I don't think I mentioned that it's very funny at times.

  2. Hi Seamus - I don't think there has been a book this year that has split opinion so much i keep reading very good things about ti but also reviews where the reader clearly hated it. I've added it to the to read pile

  3. I've not read this or while be at moment to much hype about it and the fact it sounds rather to like a spin on Bolano's early books to me ,all the best stu