Keith Ridgway - Holding the reader down and anti-climaxing all over their face. A bizarre, engaging take on the detective novel elevates the mystery of human connections above the solving of crime
Keith Ridgway, Hawthorn & Child, Granta Books, 2012.
"Hawthorn and Child are mid-ranking detectives tasked with finding significance in the scattered facts. They appear and disappear in the fragments of this book along with a ghost car, a crime boss, a pick-pocket, a dead racing driver and a pack of wolves. The mysteries are everywhere, but the biggest of all is our mysterious compulsion to solve them. In Hawthorn & Child, the only certainty is that we've all misunderstood everything."
‘Ridgway doesn't so much as redraw the map as show us what was there in the first place.He writes as though he has uncovered something, not invented it; as though these tales, so completely new, have been around for a long time.’ - Anne Enright
‘Keith Ridgway is writing fiction as radically new and provocative as any of the current generation of writers around the world, literary darlings with such exotic names as Eugenides, Hemon, Houellebecq, Kunzru, Murakami, Eggers.’ - Irish Independent
‘Vibrant, wonderfully written, funny and deeply troubled...The writing is effortlessly lyrical, [venturing] into extraordinary, at times beautiful interludes of philosophical observation... Read Hawthorn & Child. Better still read it twice: it's that real, that good, that true’ - Eileen Battersby
"Before I begin writing about this book, I have an interest to declare. I have been thanked by the author in the acknowledgements. I presume (I don’t like to ask) that this is because of my previous championing of his work on this blog. I am therefore at risk of seeming either ungrateful for the nod (I’m not), or as though I have a vested interest in the book’s success. I don’t. Well, I do: I think it’s the best new book I’ve read this year, and so I want it to do well in order that Ridgway has the means and time to write another.
He dreamed he was sleeping, and Child was driving.
Hawthorn & Child was originally subtitled, on its publisher’s website, ‘A Set of Misunderstandings’. The misunderstandings might begin in trying to define it. It’s a series of stories which is really a novel, about two London police detectives and the people they encounter. It begins with an unsolvable mystery, when a young man is shot from a passing car on a quiet north London street. The brief information provided by the victim as he lies on the hospital table (“They poked and peered at the body. They tubed the body and they hooked it up. They shifted and bound the body”) becomes the bedrock of a police investigation, a grand structure spun around no more than air. This is a book which is all about the details: the ones we don’t know, the ones we invent to replace them, and the exquisite ones Ridgway provides us with along the way. Details, like this brief phone exchange between Hawthorn and his brother, which speaks of years in a couple of lines:
—How’s the thing?
Hawthorn made a face and looked out of the window.
The imprecision of language is everywhere. Here, Hawthorn’s brother wants to ask but can’t bring himself to be specific. Elsewhere, when investigating the shooting, Hawthorn and Child take a witness’s response to a question (“Not really”) as an opening, when really it’s just a loose end. They are desperate to make things fit. “We usually don’t decide anything about things that don’t fit. They just don’t fit. So we leave them out.” In this, they are like all of us, even when we are reading this book and trying to join together the pieces of the narrative. (Ridgway: “We want to tell ourselves and our days and our lives as stories, and these things are not stories.”)
In some of the sections, the title characters are central. Child finds himself in a hostage negotiation with a young man who seems to be in a religious cult of one, and whose sense of identity is mangled. Hawthorn, straining for human contact, finds it – sort of – in a clever sequence which cuts between a riot and an orgy, and where it’s not always possible to see which is which.
There are certain things Hawthorn wants to do. There are things he doesn’t want to do. The line between these things tickles him, like a bead of sweat down his back.
In other places, Hawthorn and Child are merely in the background, seen at a distance, or referred to. Ridgway gets around having to clunkingly name them by giving Hawthorn distinctive features that can be described by others: he cries a lot (“How’s the thing?”) and there’s something, perhaps related, wrong with his face. “His face was crooked.” ”Like he was peeking through a keyhole.” “He looks somehow off kilter.” The risk here is that you get something like David Mitchell’s scar identifier that joined the characters in Cloud Atlas, which looked tricksy and needless. Cloud Atlas, in fact, is not a bad starting point for comparison with Hawthorn & Child. With his book, Mitchell wanted to go further than Calvino had in If on a winter’s night a traveller, by finishing all the stories he began. He did it, and the cumulative nimbleness was impressive; but I felt there was something missing in the heart region, and I wonder now whether the resolution of the stories contributed to it. Resolving a story can involve the author in so much contortion and knot-tying that the ugliness of the ending spoils the beauty that went before. Ridgway has been, I think, braver than Mitchell. The stories here are unresolved — ”holding the reader down and anti-climaxing all over their face,” I heard it put — but they are not incomplete. There is nothing missing, no sense that the stories peter out. The narrative pull within each one is strong, and they all leave you wanting more. What more could we ask for?
He’s completely sane. Except for this thing. It’s like all his weirdness is contained in this. In you or me weirdness is spread out over everything. Half an inch of weirdness. Over everything. With him, it’s just this one thing that’s weird. Two foot deep.
Underlying all this, or stretching over it, is the story of Hawthorn and Child themselves. This is not a buddy cop story. They are on the trail of a gangster, Mishazzo. They work together, with contrasting approaches. Hawthorn is unsubtle, Child more solicitous: he gets on with people more easily; is happier, too. In their work, Child works things out, separates the possible from the fanciful. Hawthorn doesn’t want to exclude the fanciful. He is searching for meaning, for something to put in the gaps. He thinks about things and people that might explain other things and other people to him. He “thought about men, various men, whom he moved about his mind experimentally like furniture.” These enquiries are futile, though that is their purpose. A narrator of one of the stories says, ”Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided and over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.” That narrator, from the story ‘How We Ran the Night’, is thoroughly unpleasant, and somehow frightening. (“I think of Trainer hanging in his attic. It must be worth knowing, what makes a man do that.”) There is a fair amount of shiver-inducing nastiness in Hawthorn & Child, including as many ugly deaths as you might expect in a book about policemen. Yet there is tenderness all the way through, not least in the grudging pity I felt for Hawthorn. His tragedy in a minor key makes him one of the strongest fictional creations I’ve encountered in some time.
He dreamed that he slept in a house that moved, and that was not his, and that was not now.
Hawthorn & Child exhaustively answers the question: What do you want from a book? There are likeable characters too: in ‘Goo Book’, a story of the thoughts that lie too deep to say in Mishazzo’s driver’s love affair (first published in The New Yorker); and in ‘Rothko Eggs’ (first published in Zoetrope All-Story). There are plots and stories, page-turning and teasing. There is innovation — it is structurally bold, and eye-opening in subject matter (a premiership referee who sees ghosts would fit that bill). It kicks the reader out of their comfort zone. It has lines that zing and lines that hum, as in the voice-driven ‘Marching Songs’, which as a sustained piece of fictional prose, could hardly be bettered. (Could it? Read it yourself.)
I believe, though I cannot prove, that my illness is due directly to the perverted Catholicism and megalomania of Mr Tony Blair, former Prime Minister, whom I met once, whose hand I physically shook (at which point he assaulted me), and who, if you should mention my name to him, will tell you that he met me, or that he did not meet me, or that he cannot recall. Because he has all the answers.
This is a book which I read twice before reviewing it, to unpick the connections but also because I selfishly wanted the pleasure again. And now as I thumb the pages to write this, and get nervous with excitement at seeing the best bits again, this time both fresh and familiar, I wonder if I can resist a third go. Perhaps I am mad. Perhaps, as Martin Amis described himself in relation to Bellow, I am Keith Ridgway’s perfect reader and nobody else will get the same thrill I have from this book. But let me tell you something.
I know that something has gone wrong. I know that the fault is visible. You can discern it in everything I say to you. In most of what I say to you. In how I say it. I know this. I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken." - John Self
"Hawthorn & Child is: a crime novel, a story collection, a character study, a portrait of London, a portrait of policing, a startling and fantastic book. Lucky old Granta are sitting on one of the best releases of the year with Keith Ridgway’s latest. I want the broadsheets to start yelling about this book. I want you to start yelling about this book. I want me to read all of Ridgway’s previous works. I want to read this one again.
Hawthorn and Child are detectives, London police detectives. They’re set upon a case (a murder investigation with no likely solution), after which a web of linked narratives spin off – the private lives of the various police officers, of the criminals, or peripheral witnesses and associates and children and passers-by. There’s no singular plot or voice (though Ridgway does maintain a certain staccato, minimalist style throughout), as each episode is given to us by a different character and it’s up to the reader to join the often faint pencil-dots between each tale and the next. There are first person and third person accounts, stories within stories, the plaintive cry of a confused teen, the rant of a politically disenfranchised madman. And, always, however peripherally, there’s Hawthorn and Child, revealed to us in brief glimpses and refractions – the barely acknowledged (though titular) heroes of the book. So, it’s a novel-in-stories, or what I’d call a composite novel; one without the strong through-line of a traditional, realist narrative, but with continuity nonetheless – in this instance, continuity of place (London) and character (the policemen, the main gangster). This is a form that’s had a fair amount of media attention in recent times – stand up Jennifer Egan (Goon Squad) and Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge) – but I wouldn’t say that Ridgway’s hitched himself to any populist bandwagon: his form and the content are well-matched. While Egan uses the vagaries of time as the justification/device that unifies her stories, and Strout uses community, Ridgway’s linked narratives suggest the frustration and the exhaustion, the incessant, and maybe pointless, search for meaning in the detective’s life (or, the detectives’ lives). So though it departs from what we’d probably properly understand as a crime novel – no crimes are actually solved – it’s a novel about the search for answers, a theme that’s nicely encapsulated in the careers of its main two protagonists. Ridgway’s characters are looking for meaning in their jobs, in their love-lives, in their paranoid obsession with Tony Blair, in their private record of love (‘Goo Book’, the second story, will have you crying, I swear to God). But Ridgway offers no answers – his stories are slippery, the characters escape us, their own questions go unanswered, they flee, they fuck up, they’re lost. So we’ve got a fragmentary novel that refuses to give up its secrets – the stories are linked, but gaps remain. When I finished it, I wanted to immediately begin rereading to tease out the connections that I was/am sure that I missed – like Hawthorn, I wanted to make notes and revisit and ponder old scenes, whilst knowing that the answers would likely remain hidden. It’s an elliptical book that relies on blanks to convey its particular message of accretion and connection.
I realise I may be making this sound like an exercise in frustration. But it’s not: it’s a beautiful and compelling read. There’s lovely detail in the prose. ‘People trickled out of the tube station like beads of sweat.’ ‘The body is a multitude of ways of coming apart.’ ‘There was a jelly over the city and they had string with which to section off and slice it.’ The dialogue is spare and perfect.
- How’s the thing?
- What thing?
- The crying.
Hawthorn made a face and looked out of the window.
- It’s fine.
Hawthorn himself – a forgetful, unimpressive cop, gay, possibly depressed, lonely – is, as briefly as he appears, one of the strongest fictional characters I’ve come across in a while. Child, his foil, is stronger and harder, at least until ‘The Association Of Christ Sejunct’ – after which I wanted to skip backwards and reread his other cameos in light of that one. The book is a collage and as such it warrants – demands – multiple examinations. Ridgway makes you work, but he makes the process a joy.
Any Cop? It’s formally challenging, so I can see how it might get categorised as a ‘difficult’ book – but if you’re going to make an effort with any text this year, make it Hawthorn & Child. Simple, elegant prose, powerful characters, beauty and misery and love and humour – and detectives! It’s a crying shame this didn’t get on the 2012 Booker list – it deserves mass recognition. - Valerie O’Riordan
"The other day I got an email from an agent saying he had never done this before but we (the email went out to his entire contact list) should all buy Keith Ridgway's story "The Spectacular" for 99p from Amazon immediately because it was incredibly good. So I did, and it was. The story is set in the same fictional world as this novel, and I read it in one sitting, completely thrilled by the audaciously deceptive simplicity of both Ridgway's writing and the story itself (literary author sells out to plot predictable A-format terrorist atrocity at the Olympics, only to be arrested in real life). It's impossible to tell whether or not this story is an offcut from the novel, but in any case it's included as part of the whole package when you buy this book on a Kindle. And it fits. Like everything here, it's a story about stories in a novel that isn't a novel.
About halfway through Hawthorn & Child we meet an editor character (who may also be a sex killer), who tells us: "I read stories all day long […] 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 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. And they do it. And people read these things. People actually read them from within their lives and the pages are numbered and the numbers are sequential." Reading this book for plot – as if it were a novel – positions the reader alongside not just this editor, but the detectives at its centre. Hawthorn and Child roam across London trying to make stories out of things, despite the fact that things don't always make stories. They look for plot and we look for plot. The punchline? There is no plot. The numbers are not sequential and you may as well keep on adding other stories for as long as you like.
Hawthorn and Child are just as likely to be eating breakfast in a café in the background of someone else's story as they are to function as protagonists. When we first meet them, they have temporarily abandoned the gangster Mishazzo in order to investigate a shooting in which the victim thinks the perpetrator is a vintage car. Later, we meet Mishazzo's driver. "Sometimes he just had to drive around in a circle, waiting for Mishazzo to emerge. Furniture shops, little lawyers' offices, cafés, a house in East Ham. A minicab place in Walthamstow." This unnamed character is one of the more engaging in the book. He and his girlfriend write each other love letters in a hidden notebook and spend much of the rest of their time experimenting with bondage. Then there's the art-loving daughter of Chief Inspector Rivers, who has a sweet, coming-of-age chapter to herself and says of Jackson Pollock's paintings: "They're like the idea of having an idea, instead of having an idea."
Ridgway's best compositions can be breathtakingly unpredictable, as in the excellent chapter that juxtaposes policing a demonstration with having group-sex in a sauna. Hawthorn, the gay detective who cries often and for no reason, is at the heart of both these confusing and arousing encounters. In among all this is a disturbing, but brilliantly weird, anecdote about the death of a fat man. At his best, Ridgway is unapologetically strange. (Is there a secret band of wolves in London?) And the writing is perfectly assured and elegant. "Then Hawthorn looked back at him. Held his eyes. For exactly the amount of time it takes for a look like that to become a look like that." Elsewhere, "People trickled out of the tube station like beads of sweat."
But then there's the really dark stuff: something like The Bill being directed by Braindead-era Peter Jackson and written up by Irvine Welsh. A baby is dropped down the stairs. A woman dies by simultaneously asphyxiating and burning to death (it's not clear whether she did this to herself, or someone else was behind it). The editor peels skin off his victims. This world of missing connections is indeed like the actual world, perhaps too much like it, and Hawthorn and Child, who see the worst of it, make rather unnerving company." - Scarlett Thomas
"A young man has been shot on a city street at night by an unknown assailant. Two detectives rush to the hospital, sirens blaring, to interview him before he goes into surgery. To anyone who has ever read a piece of crime fiction or watched a cop show on TV, the opening of Keith Ridgway's new novel, set on the mean streets of north-east London, will be familiar. From the first page, however, things seem slightly out of sync. Amid the commotion, one of the detectives – Hawthorn – is fast asleep. He wakes up en route to the hospital but cannot easily shake off his dream. And its atmosphere lingers.
The victim claims he has been shot not by a person but by a car: a vintage automobile with running boards and silver door handles, "like in a black-and-white film". Before we can get to the bottom of this, our attention is directed elsewhere. In the second chapter, a young pickpocket gets a job driving for a gang boss named Mishazzo. Hawthorn and his partner, Child, reappear on detective business – they are keeping tabs on Mishazzo's activities – but the story is no less concerned with the pickpocket's private life: he and his girlfriend are unable to voice their most intimate feelings for each other; they write them down in a book, which they hide in a drawer in the kitchen and never openly discuss.
Instead of returning to the original case, the narrative spirals outwards to investigate other lives that connect, however tangentially, with the two detectives. These stories become increasingly bizarre. A publisher receives a manuscript about a gang of wolves fighting for dominance over a sort of parallel London; his attempts to decipher it lead him to the margins of the city – and his own sanity. Many of the characters here are disturbed, delusional and potentially dangerous – to themselves and anyone else.
This is a detective novel in which the mysteries of people's lives threaten to overshadow mysteries born of criminal activity. The crime that gives the novel its initial momentum fades away like the half-glimpsed vintage car, never to reappear. We don't witness the detectives solving anything of particular note: they, too, are preoccupied by personal issues. Hawthorn is openly gay and has to put up with constant ribbing from colleagues and his own family. And his grip on the reality of his job grows increasingly strained.
Meanwhile, the ostensible bad guys, the Mishazzo gang, are never shown doing anything illegal: the exact nature of their criminality remains undisclosed. There is a death later on that raises intriguing questions, but it's a suicide, not a murder.
The real subject of the novel, perhaps, is how mysterious we are to one another and how lives are damaged, sometimes irreparably, by the gaps of comprehension. Ridgway, a Dublin author who lived in north London for more than a decade, writes these interlocking stories with the keen sense of place and lucid, pared-down prose of a good crime novel, which makes the more outlandish deviations from the genre even more arresting.
The most persistent mystery, in a book filled with unlikely tales, has to do with the reliability of the narrative itself. Is the novel a collective fantasy, a series of elaborate delusions? Is it all an extension of Hawthorn's dream in the opening pages? No clear answers are forthcoming, but that doesn't make the novel any less engaging. "Knowing things completes them. Kills them," says the publisher. "They fade away, decided and over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us." This unusual detective story takes the wisdom of his observation on board, and runs with it." - Killian Fox
"I picked up a copy of “Hawthorn and Child” a while back, when I hadn’t heard of Keith Ridgway. Blurbs on the back mentioned Eggers, Nicholson, Murakami, Eugenides, and it’s published by Granta, so seemed well worth a go. Now I can barely recall a time when the name Ridgway was unknown to me. There’ve been a lot of online mentions of this novel-in-stories. John Self championed it, people I think are super smart have raved about it (@seventydys I’m looking at you), and there are a fair few reviews around (I try not to read reviews when I’m planning to write one of my own). I’ve looked Ridgway up online and come across some scorchingly good blogs of his, including this:
‘Writing is running full tilt at a closed door with your shoulder down. And each time you write it’s another hit. And you hope each time that this time you will break though, into that part of yourself where all the skill is, where everything will be within reach, where it will all be easy. And you just keep on rushing the door. And you just end up with the skin gone purple and a shard of bone slicing a muscle, and you’re fucked. You are fucked by a collar bone trauma and the door is so solid that you are looking at the wall and you are starting to think that you might have been better a little to the right or the left, or that the thing that you think is a door is not a door at all and you are not supposed to go through it, it is a cliff and you are supposed to climb it. And you think, at your age, why don’t I try the handle? But it’s locked. Of course it’s locked. You’re sure you must have checked. At the start. At the beginning. Of all this. And you think, over your grey tea and your cold toast, maybe I should ask for a key.
Writing is running full tilt at a closed door with your shoulder down. And each time you write it’s another hit. And you hope each time that this time you will break though, into that part of yourself where all the skill is, where everything will be within reach, where it will all be easy. And you just keep on rushing the door. And you just end up with the skin gone purple and a shard of bone slicing a muscle, and you’re fucked. You are fucked by a collar bone trauma and the door is so solid that you are looking at the wall and you are starting to think that you might have been better a little to the right or the left, or that the thing that you think is a door is not a door at all and you are not supposed to go through it, it is a cliff and you are supposed to climb it. And you think, at your age, why don’t I try the handle? But it’s locked. Of course it’s locked. You’re sure you must have checked. At the start. At the beginning. Of all this. And you think, over your grey tea and your cold toast, maybe I should ask for a key.”
It’s not taken long for me to become a fan. His words resonate and sing with truth.
“Hawthorn and Child” are “mid-ranking detectives” introduced to us in the first story while they investigate the shooting of a young man who recalls only, “A car. Shot me.”
The ensuing investigation sets the tone for the rest of the book. The detectives question witnesses, talk together, wait in the hospital. A witness says the victim told him the car was “ochre” although Hawthorn and Child think he may have said, “old car.” As is often the case in life, there is no neat wrapping up of the mystery, no resolution.
It’s a slippery read. The prose is so clear and natural, it flows beautifully, and yet there are gaps, missing information. Each story is linked, sometimes just by a glimpse of one of the recurrent characters. (As well as Hawthorn and Child, the criminal, Mishazzo recurs. He weaves in and out of the narrative; a shadowy danger.)
It’s a contradictory text, at once engaging and puzzling. There’s confusion and precision as what is unsaid, the silences, the gaps, the missing pieces of information, add together to form a whole. And that whole becomes a curiously realistic portrayal of London, crime, and daily realities. There’s a mash up of sex and policing, there’s violence, and death. Yet it’s the quiet moments, the spaces between, that count most.
Something mentioned in one story reappears as the centre of another, Hawthorn and Child are not the focus. It’s a tough book to review - I find the idea of it being a detective novel quite misleading, and yet, it is ostensibly about police work. It’s an easy read because the quality of the story telling is so good, and yet it is not simple.
For me the stand out story is “Rothko Eggs”. It’s a pitch-perfect tale of a young girl and her relationships. From the misfire of the title (you’ll have to read to find out) to the gaps between her and her boyfriend, it’s skilfully done and I was left wondering how the fuck Ridgway was able to convey so much.
“He said nothing. She looked at him.
He was quiet. He had drifted off somewhere.”
It’s an excellent book. - Sara Crowley
"Amongst a select group of readers there is a lot of enthusiasm for Keith Ridgway. They may not agree on what his best work is but there is certainly consensus that he is one of the most interesting writers working today. His latest novel is the first to be published by Granta who have been making all the big waves in 2012 with fabulous titles like Peter Stamm's Seven Years, Ben Lerner's Leaving The Atocha Station, Justin Torres' We The Animals and Denis Johnson's Train Dreams still to come. One book I had been eagerly anticipating, after enjoying his story collection Standard Time, was this new novel from Ridgway and those of you who read John Self's Asylum site or follow him on Twitter will have already been bashed around the head several times with how good it is. It really is very good. All the more dispiriting then to learn that on its publication day Waterstones, which has over 300 stores nationwide, had ordered a grand total of 18 copies.
I can't do anything about how Waterstones buys books, all I can do is bang on about this cracker sufficiently hard enough to send you to your preferred book outlet of choice and order a copy. I fail to see how you could be disappointed. How can I be so sure? Well, it seems to me there are two kinds of thing that can excite you about a book. The publishing industry as it stands can create plenty of buzz behind debut or event novels, books that like to stand up very tall on their own and demand that you all read them and discuss them. The quality of writing in those books is not the point. Amidst all the hubbub that is the insane phenomenon of 50 Shades of Grey (which took just eleven weeks to sell over a million copies, smashing the previous record held by Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code which took a leisurely 36 weeks to do the same) I only ever hear people saying how badly written it is, but who cares? Other books like Room or The Slap used quirk or debate to fuel enthusiasm, the kind of water-cooler chatter that helps build word-of-mouth success. I've read plenty of interesting debuts only to be disappointed by the follow up before watching that author fade away (presumably having made enough from the much publicised six-figure advance to not have to worry about writing much more).
What I get excited about is finding an author who I want to read time and again. Philip Roth, Denis Johnson, J M Coetzee, Graham Greene, Stefan Zweig, W G Sebald, John Burnside - these are writers who haven't just written one good book, but several, and provided innovation and exploration for those readers devoted to them. Locking on to a modern writer like that seems to be getting harder with publishers less wiling or able to nurture writers as in days of old. Fail to shift enough copies or win an award and you may find yourself being forced to write a werewolf trilogy to keep the...erm, wolf from the door. Why is Ridgway amongst the writers that you should be interested in reading? Lets start with just how enjoyable this book is. There is nothing quite like reading a novel and getting a kick out of each successive page in terms of pure enjoyment. Ridgway writes with that deceptive ease that makes you feel as though the book is an easy read even whilst it dares to reach the parts other novels cannot reach.
Hawthorn and Child are two detectives whom we meet in the opening chapter within a dream of Hawthorn's. How's that for a playful beginning? They go to investigate a seemingly random shooting in which the victim claims to have been shot by a vintage car, we might expect this to go on to be a police procedural, albeit of a rather unusual kind, but don't expect to get any answers to this case or indeed any other. In fact don't expect this book to give you any of the usual assurances of a narrative novel. Whilst Hawthorn and Child may lend it their names you would struggle to even call them the main protagonists. 'We are not at the centre of things, said Child' and he is right, as the book's various chapters introduce us to new characters and storylines, the two detectives returning periodically a little like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hawthorn is the most fascinating of the two, a somewhat depressive figure, 'crooked somehow', prone to drifting off; making cryptic, literary notes that have little bearing on the case in hand. He is also gay and in one bravura section entitled How To Have Fun With A Fat Man Ridgway manages to write about Hawthorn policing a riot and attending an orgy in a sauna at the same time. Sometimes it is clear which location we are in but all too often Ridgway's brilliant use of language keeps it ambiguous and points up the similarities between these two seemingly opposed scenarios.
At a signal they move away form the wall. They move towards he others. It is always a confrontation. It is always a stand off. Hawthorn is shoulder to shoulder with men like himself. He is eye to eye across the air. He is picking out certain faces. He is making calculations. There are certain things he wants to do. There are things he doesn't want to do. These things are always people. He accepts or declines each face. Each set of shoulders. He is agreeing to and refusing each body in turn. His mind is ahead of him. He is saying yes to that one, no to that one. He is choosing. Choice is an illusion.
Each chapter has its own title, inviting us to treat this like a collection of linked stories. Some of these are so successfully independent that they give the pleasure of reading a perfectly honed short story. When this happens more than once in the novel you get the slightly giddy feeling of too much of a good thing. No complaints here however. Goo Book for example, in which we meet the driver of the elusive criminal Mishazzo and enter his relationship with his girlfriend, neither of whom can actually say tender things to one another but choose to write them instead in a notebook for the other to find, thus freeing themselves up to indulge a far more exotic sexual life (involving some of what is presumably making 50 Shades so popular), is a brilliant, self-contained gem (so much so that it was printed in the New Yorker here). It could stand alone as a short story and satisfy you completely but placed where it is in the novel it adds not only a frisson of something unexpected but also something close to sentimentality; a moment of genuine romance no matter how tainted.
They lay next to each other in the bed and touched each other and laid their faces one against the other and when they were tired of talking they fucked and when they were tired of fucking they talked, and many different afternoons became one afternoon that persisted in his mind for the rest of his life and he never knew what to make of it, then or after.
Marching Songs is another section that thrives out of context (again there's the opportunity to read it as such thanks to the publisher themselves here). It is a quite brilliant monologue, not just because of its distinctive voice, scattered subjects and obsessive detail but because whilst it is like a direct address monologue it is very much a piece of writing that makes virtue of itself as a piece of writing. I'm sure it could be read brilliantly out loud by an actor or the author himself but it reads so well on the page that the perverse pleasure is there for everyone who picks up the book (or clicks on the link above). A piece that captures brilliantly the morbid curiosity of the modern world, where videos of every kind of accident and atrocity can viewed whenever we like and as often as we like ("You can watch it all. Over and over.") actually had me personally unable to stop myself viewing some of the videos detailed. There is something compelling about the heroism of Formula One driver David Purley as he seeks to save the life of his friend and fellow driver Roger Williamson in the Dutch Grand Prix of 1973 but Ridgway manages to make even more of it with his simple description and commentary on the event.
I have read novels before that use the linked story format to make up their whole. Some of them work better than others. Ridgway almost goes one step further by eschewing the idea that these linked stories should come together to provide a narrative. As I said earlier, there will be no solution to the shooting incident that opens the book (sorry, spoiler!), but that is never really the point. The combined narratives of each chapter satisfy on their own in the same way that an unresolved short story can. The fact that there is not one but several of them and that they all inhabit the same world and share some of the same characters is what actually made the book such a success to me. Along the way you will meet criminals and the men who pursue them, family members, a premiership referee who sees ghosts, a secret brethren of wolves in conflict with other animals (yes, really) and yet none of it ever seems absurd. It is quirky in all the right ways and all goes to show what I said at the very beginning. There are some writers you read and come back to again and again because they consistently produce work of quality, variety and ingenuity. Ridgway has joined that list for me (in fact I enjoyed this one so much I read it twice - and I never do that), I can only hope that he will do the same for other readers too." - William Rycroft
"It's amazing how relatively unknown Keith Ridgway remains in Ireland. Not that he's a complete unknown, but a writer of his quality and with this CV should probably be a bigger name.
The Dubliner published his first fiction 15 years ago, in a Faber anthology. A collection of short stories, Standard Time, won the prestigious Rooney Prize in 2000.
He's also published novels The Long Falling, The Parts and Animals, to rapturous applause; been featured in The New Yorker; and had his work translated into several languages.
But never mind the bald facts, check out the critical praise. Jamie O'Neill, himself award-winning, described Ridgway as "genius". Colum McCann said his work was "Funny . . . gorgeous . . . beautifully written."
He's been compared to heavyweights like Eugenides, Kunzru and Murakami, and selected as a Book of the Year in the New York Times.
So how is this man still something of an unknown in his homeland, forgotten in the rush to heap adoration on Sebastian Barry, Colm Tóibín et al?
Possibly it's the fact that, until recently, Ridgway lived abroad for a long time. But more likely is the fact that what he's doing isn't as easily processed, as slick and palatable, to a wide audience as other Irish writers.
Ridgway's new book, Hawthorn & Child, is strange, unsettling, fragmented, confusing, at times dreamlike (these are all good things, by the way). You won't find sentimental stories of Irish emigrants here, nor self-flagellating clichés about dysfunctional families.
The prose style is unusual, too, coming from an Irish novelist. Whereas his compatriots often craft self-consciously "literary" sentences -- the sort of thing that gets award nominations but can feel somehow inauthentic -- Ridgway is more stripped down, though still elegant and (for want of a better word) literary.
His seems to have a more modernist style, cool and brisk and oblique, pulsing with intrinsic energy, feeling fresh and vital, the genuine expression of an individual's thoughts and talents, instead of the machine-tooled regurgitation of what the audience expects. And really, what more can you ask of a novel?
The story, or rather stories, concern two London policemen, the titular detectives Hawthorn and Child. It opens with them being called to a shooting, but this is just the beginning for a series of incidents both violent and tender, strange occurrences, stranger characters, shifts in time, shifts in perspective, shifts in tone and tempo.
The different threads are connected, but tenuously so, though of course this is deliberately done: it's not as if Ridgway has lost control of his own stories.
The book makes the reader work hard, much like its two heroes: sifting through the facts, piecing together clues, trying to shape a cohesive narrative out of seemingly random bits of information. And it's all the more satisfying for that.
Will Hawthorn & Child find a massive audience? Probably not, sadly. Will it become the darling of book clubs and the awards circuit? Again, probably not. But in both cases, you feel, Keith Ridgway won't care too much: the work is its own reward, and this work is quite rewarding indeed." - Darragh McManus
"Last month I downloaded The Spectacular, an excellent short story on Kindle by Irish writer Keith Ridgway. The story is set in the same universe as the author’s latest novel Hawthorn & Child, which I read for the first time this week. There’s a section in Marching Songs, the sixth of the eight stories that make up Hawthorn & Child, where a man tells us about the deaths he watches online.
On the internet, you can watch people dying, all over the place. This is new, isn’t it? This is a new thing in the world.
He watches Formula One racing crashes, ‘over and over.’ He lists them, lingering on one specifically – the death of Roger Williamson in 1973, where fellow driver and friend David Purley tries to save him on the track. He describes the video in detail:
Purley can hear Roger Williamson. He can hear him shouting. Then screaming. The extinguisher won’t work. There’s only one. He tries to get it to work. He tries to lift the car. He can’t lift the car. The marshals are standing there looking at him. The smoke is billowing out. The race goes on. He walks away. He runs back. His arms. His shoulders. He can hear Williamson. Then he can’t.
It’s typical of the world of Hawthorn & Child that the description of the video is not quite correct. I watched the video of the 1973 Williamson crash on YouTube, after reading the novel. Because it’s true: you really can see these things on the internet now. You can watch them over and over. In the version I saw, contrary to the narrator’s description, the extinguisher does work, in that it functions. But of course it also doesn’t work, in that it doesn’t put out the fire. The ambiguity of language pervades this novel and every character in it.
Later in Marching Songs, when the narrator returns to his thoughts on Williamson and Purley, he makes a grotesque claim about something he cannot possibly know or prove. He uses the video as part of his own fantasy, appropriating it even as he fails to see things clearly, at one point referring to the dying driver incorrectly as Williams.
In Marching Songs, as with so many instances in the book, the desire for narrative - the need to leave things out or force things together – becomes deranged or even harmful. The novel bites back at fiction itself.
It opens with 1934, a section which follows police partners Hawthorn and Child as they investigate a shooting. Everything is set in present-day London, a world of mobile phones and the internet, laced with the perennial strangeness of people: descriptions of a hidden wolf clan in the city; intimations of ghosts. We return to Hawthorn and Child working together at the end of the book. In the meantime they appear, often vaguely or briefly, in others’ stories and in one brilliantly handled section concerning Hawthorn where his perceptions of a gay sauna and a riot scene merge.
Overall we see most of Hawthorn, a man with an oddly shifting face who feels physically awkward and is often unhappy, whose charming quirkiness sometimes slips into more unpleasant behaviour. We are never given as close a view of Child, who at least seems settled and happy, although he witnesses horror alongside his partner.
Hawthorn & Child refuses to be a crime novel, but when it uses the tropes of that genre (banter between the pair; interminable car journeys; sudden horror) Ridgway handles the dialogue and characterisation in a way that is a joy to read:
We’re going the wrong way, he shouted. Child looked at him. The siren wasn’t on. The shout had sounded insane.
We’re not going to Hampley Road, Hawthorn. We’re going to the hospital.
Hawthorn & Child is a novel of stories that engages with our desire to make sense of things with stories, both filling in the gaps and leaving things out. The stories don’t explicitly resolve into the overarching completeness of a novel – an effect magnified by the existence of The Spectacular. The stories themselves are full of misunderstandings. They’re peppered with notes on the artificial structure of fiction and on the nature of not knowing.
The overall effect succeeds because Ridgway’s precision and talent as a writer allows you to trust him completely as a reader, even as you follow allusions that lead nowhere, or find that you have pieced something together that on further reflection might not necessarily fit.
This is a remarkable book, all the more thrilling to me because it curls its strange emulation of reality around parts of our own reality – the geography of London, modern technology, real individuals such as David Purley or Tony Blair. Ridgway’s writing is vibrant, each part of the novel packed with the poetic density of a short story and the novel itself greater than sum of its parts.
There’s so much to it, so many things that would reward reading and re-reading again. Its structure, of several interlinked yet stand-alone short stories, calls to mind other contemporary novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad and Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, but the overall feel of Hawthorn & Child is much stranger, much more unresolved and absolutely alive. It is a unique and affecting work, somehow making sense of our world by refusing to make sense of anything at all." - Eva Stalker
"—We are not at the centre of things, said Child.
So speaks one of the detectives whose names adorn the cover of Keith Ridgway’s simply stunning novel. I resist calling them central characters, or suggesting that the book is about detectives Hawthorn and Child, because such a reduction would so mischaracterise what Ridgway has done here. The book begins with a dream, and that quality persists throughout: shifting, partial, moments elided, the constellation of images slightly brighter than is comfortable, pin-sharp, but whisked away, blurring as they recede, as liquid as the forms which so occupy Ridgway. Figures with curious names – Mishazzo, Gull, Hawthorn, Child – emerge from the dream of North London and occupy the eight linked stories, fill them with uncertainty, fear, flesh, sex, paranoia, and death. The writing is merciless and the effect hypnotic.
Time stretches but it never breaks. It never breaks.
The place of each story within any overarching narrative is unclear, irresolvable on the basis of the incomplete information we are given. Ridgway begins with an apparent attempted murder to which Hawthorn and Child have been assigned, but this is anything but a crime novel. There is no sequence of investigation and the crime quickly fades into the background for the fractured occupants of a refractory North London. Indeed, the structural impression is of an eternal present, naturally opposed to narrative and explanation, whilst the experience of each character is a composite of fear, memory, suspicion, lust, and confusion. The broken experience of the apparently sane fails to comfortably contrast with that of the more uncontrolled and violent occupants of Hawthorn and Child in stories like ‘Marching Songs’ and ‘The Association of Christ Sejunct’. Only they are aware of the cracks, only they feel the need to state what we all seem to unquestioningly believe:
I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.
There is nothing solid in this collection of unreliable and dissonant voices, except perhaps a certain sentiment: the yearning for connection bound to the uncertainty of our understanding of the opaque minds of others. The stories ‘Goo Book’ and ‘Rothko Eggs’explore this sense very effectively in their different ways. Each is intensely affecting, marking out Ridgway as capable of calm, controlled and sympathetic prose, which serves only to heighten the tension that holds the whole book together in such vibrating and paradoxical unity.
Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.
This from a literary agent in ‘How We Ran the Night’ – perhaps the strangest story which, in this novel, is quite something. Psychological and narrative explanation is held up here not simply as impossible, but as wrong-headed. The constructions we impose on those around us support our world, but the world does not support them. That world seems diseased, and Ridgway’s writing oozes this illness across the page in febrile sentences:
The poisoned evening spun a little. The sky was pink and the buildings black and the lights looked wet in the warmth, and people trickled out of the tube station like beads of sweat.
Here flesh and sky merge in a manner typical of the whole work. Experience is organic and as prone to infection as the matter from which it is so often separated in literature. Indeed, one character suffers from just such an infection even as his mind is overcome with paranoid delusions about Tony Blair. Violence and horror pervade Hawthorn and Child.
On the Internet, you can watch people dying, all over the place. This is new isn’t it? This is a new thing in the world.
Real or imagined, there is an odd seduction in mutilated flesh and mental anguish, which can reach a quite extraordinary pitch in its conjunction with the commonplaces of everyday life, culminating in a horror I will leave you to discover for yourself. That horror is delivered with consummate skill and control, in a manner which is hard to communicate in a review. Ridgway’s achievement in this book is quite remarkable in its imaginative breadth and literary depth. I’m not sure that I have read anything like it. As Hawthorn and Child struggle to understand and act in the world around them, to resolve persons and events, one thing comes to the fore more strongly than anything else,
We’re all mostly bullshit." - Alan Bowden
"Keith Ridgway's new novel, Hawthorn And Child, is a whodunnit without an answer. It's about an attempted murder that remains unsolved. As Ridgway's eponymous detectives wander the London streets, at times it's not even clear which crime they are trying to crack. 'I go through binges of reading crime and thriller novels and it's always the setting up that's the exciting bit,' says Ridgway, who has now repatriated himself to Dublin after living in London for 12 years. 'After that, it all dissolves. There's something important about the way we are disappointed when the mystery is solved. We prefer to have a series of things to work out.'
You might not have heard of Ridgway: he's a bit of a well-kept secret. He's been writing steadily stranger novels since his 1999 debut The Long Falling, about a widow leaving rural Ireland for thrusting, modern Dublin. He deserves to be much better known. He writes odd, modernist stories about urban madness; about lives shaped by uncertainty, random sex and occasionally staggering brutality.
'It's about trying to create a view of the world I find honest and truthful,' he says. 'We tend to experience things at third or fourth hand; we live in this flurry of facts and details and peculiar happenings that we're not directly connected to but which swirl around us. Over the years I've become increasingly frustrated with conventionally structured novels. They don't quite ever get to where I want to go.'
Hawthorn And Child is set in modern-day London. Its protagonists include a pickpocket, an editor who may be a sex killer and a gangster called Mishazzo, whose name is disconcertingly similar to a woman who later commits suicide – or is murdered – in violently spectacular fashion and who, it transpires, is the friend of Hawthorn and Child's boss. 'I didn't intend to write a detective novel but it struck me that that's what policemen do: they are presented with scattered facts and they try to make sense out of it,' he says. 'I was intrigued by that idea. I thought it would be a frame for these concerns I was having with storytelling and these very fragmentary experiences we have.'
Modern cities are a bit of a muse to Ridgway: his 2003 novel The Parts was about the multi-faceted identity of Celtic Tiger-era Dublin; 2006's hallucinatory Animals – about a disintegrating mind – was set in London. 'I moved to London for a man,' he says romantically. 'And I left because I can no longer afford it. I'm now sailing gracelessly into my middle age and I can't share houses with five other people any more. London is a pretty combative city in which to live. There's a real danger it will suffer the brain drain Dublin did. It's not just economics, it's the politics that are increasingly uncomfortable and difficult.'
He writes out of a sense of anxiety. 'Everything I do tends to be laboriously extracted from me. If I'm happy and things are going well in my life, then I'm not writing. And so when I suddenly realise that I haven't written anything for four weeks, I start getting anxious that I'm not anxious. It's a horrible cycle for my friends: either Keith is OK but he's not writing so he's not OK, or he's writing so he's a miserable bastard.'
His frustration isn't just creative, but economical. Granta has just published an eBook-only version of his short story, The Spectacular, about a literary author who sets out to write a terrorism-inspired airport thriller in a desperate attempt to make some money.
'The writer in that is me, up to a point,' he says. 'You do get this terrible sensation of: here I am, working hard, producing work that people either opt in or opt out of, which is fine. But when you see people producing trashy books, you can't help but think – why can't I write a trashy book? But I just don't have the technical ability to do that.' To which his devoted fans will probably heave a sigh of relief." - Claire Allfree
(This is one of a series of posts of things written while I was working on Hawthorn & Child. Not off-cuts so much as side-effects. They share the same space in my head as the book, but apart from that they’re homeless. So, here they are. KR)
Keith Ridgway, Animals, Fourth Estate, 2006.
"Not since Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold has a disintegrating consciousness been portrayed so convincingly. Funny and nightmarish by turns, Animals is one of those books that one feels compelled to start reading again as soon as one has finished it." - The Times
"Keith Ridgway is one of contemporary fiction's great procrastinators. That is not a slight on his productivity: over the past five years he has published a volume of short stories, a novella and two novels, the most recent of which, The Parts, was a hugely ambitious, multi-narrator homage to his home town of Dublin. It is not that Ridgway is incapable of writing, more that incapability lies at the heart of what he writes about. His monologues move less in streams than whirlpools: an admirer of Beckett, Ridgway has absorbed a trick or two about stasis, paralysis, anxiety and indecision. Yet at the beginning of his latest work he quite surpasses himself with an 18-page internal debate about whether or not to poke a dead mouse.
This novel began life as a story called "The Mouse in the Body", posted on the literary website the Liffey Project (www.liffeyproject.net), in which an unnamed narrator is struck by the pathos of a dead mouse lying in the gutter. He feels a strange compulsion to prod the creature, and begins casting around for suitable implements, deciding that an umbrella would be ideal, though his is at home, while a water bottle is rejected as the wrong shape, and a pen (the narrator is an illustrator) too close to the bone. There follows a disquisition on the stereotypical depiction of mice in cartoons before he decides to go with the pen after all. "Cap on, or cap off?" he muses, at which point the reader is practically screaming at him to poke the bloody thing.
It seems like an awful lot of energy to expend on an expired rodent. Yet the conclusion of the story suggests that the encounter forms some kind of metaphysical turning point: "That was it. There was no way back then." In the novel, Ridgway amends this to: "That was it. That was how it started," and appends nine chapters detailing the narrator's paranoid disintegration.
The post-mouse particulars follow the heightened but irrational logic of a particularly bad dream. The narrator is worried about everything - being rejected, being unable to draw, being locked in a park at night - all of which, with the cursed bad luck of the truly paranoid, inevitably come to pass. And when things get really bad, he starts seeing animals: "A pack of cats infested a tree at my back. The see-saw was perfectly balanced with a blooded fox on one side and its weight in spiders on the other. None of this is true."
The novel seems to be a bold attempt to convey the fluctuations and fevers of a damaged state of mind - its experimental nature is confirmed by the fact that Ridgway takes great pains to avoid saying anything specific. In the past Ridgway has practically cast contemporary Dublin as his chief character; here he is deliberately vague. And the narrator's key relationship with someone referred to only as "K" adds Kafkaesque overtones, though the avoidance of personal pronouns makes it impossible to determine whether they are gay or straight.
Perhaps a clue to Ridgway's purpose can be found in the two other artists he incorporates as characters in the book: David, a fantasy novelist who has written nothing, yet devoted years to codifying the historic, topographical and economic landscape of his fictional universe; and Rachel, a conceptual artist whose practice involves starting rumours and documenting the results. At the conclusion of the book, the narrator surveys the chaos of Rachel's studio. He reports: "I am uncertain here what is art or material for art, and what is simply accumulated and accidental . . . I am uncertain what to think. I think that is all I have to say."
Ridgway has admitted to being a bit of a stationery fetishist, with a fascination for indexing his characters' biographies on coloured card-files and elaborately plotted wall-charts. Animals is a mine of myopically recorded information, though it is sometimes hard to distinguish what is art from the material for art. I too am uncertain what to think. I think that is all I have to say." - Alfred Hickling
"If the cover of a book is important, what of the author’s name? Keith Ridgway is saddled not only with a name which is not quite chiming with authority (and destined to be misspelled in search engines), but a cover design which aims for plain starkness and ends up boring. With Animals, he is taking his revenge on society.
To avoid demanding of you what Ridgway does of his readers, I will say straight away that Animals is one of those books, often touted but rarely with accuracy, that rewards patience. This is a novel which it is sometimes tempting to give up on, but which you will be very glad you didn’t.
It takes us into the life of an unnamed illustrator, a man of – shall we say – sensitive temperament and somewhat obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He is troubled by “the business of being in the world and how to negotiate it.” As a consequence, the story is muddled and disordered, and he keeps jumping ahead too far and then pulling us back with an explanation. The events themselves, involving a dead mouse, a collapsing swimming pool, a see-saw stacked with spiders, and a haunted building, are both banal and freakish. And the narrator is plausible until he flurries into accounts like this:
As the towel came away from my lower cheeks I noticed first a small black mark on my left cheek, adjacent to the nostril. As I instinctively leaned in toward the mirror to better see what this might be, the towel, held by my hands, continued downwards, revealing above my mouth a stuttering continuation of this black mark into larger blobs and beads and scatterings, like an ink blot on my skin. As I peered, seeing that the trail continued onto my lips, and indeed between them, and as my eyes and my involuntary tongue confirmed that these blackish reddish bluish things were not marks or traces but actually material of some description – debris – and as my independent, quick-moving tongue trapped one part of this detritus against the test surface of a tooth to discover a hard stringy grittiness, so my hands took the towel away from my neck and my eyes looked down, to confirm almost instantly what I had begun to suspect: that what littered my skin and had fallen or crawled into my mouth was the sundered parts of a large black spider, whose bulky twitching carcass was smeared across the white towel I held in my hands like the entrails of roadkill dragged across the snow.
- which neatly highlights the issue of whether all the terrible and confusing things the narrator sees are real, or
nothing more than the physical manifestation of my own fear of the real world – by which I mean the natural world, by which I mean those parts of the world that are not created and controlled by us. By mankind.
This is central to the book, which is peopled with characters alongside the narrator who make their own reality: such as David, the friend whose self-contained fantasy fiction world earns the narrator’s contempt: “You’re wasting your time. You have a wonderful talent for writing and you’re wasting it. You’re like a beetle fallen on its back. You could spend the entire rest of your life describing the clouds;” or Rachel, an artist who subverts normal understandings of reality by faking missing persons notices. And along the way the book raises issues about the purpose of art, and the uses of terrorism.
All of this makes Animals one of the most interesting, and singular, books I’ve read in ages. Even in a tradition of paranoid, delusional fiction, it is a truly novel novel, and satisfyingly disturbing. Ridgway is an admirer of Beckett, and it’s not hard to see his influence here (though Animals is rather more readable than that suggests, and the occasional longueurs are not too offputting). It’s also lightly peppered with black wit.
Another obvious comparison is Kafka, not least for the inclusion of a character, gender undeclared, named only K. But where Kafka’s protagonists are trapped in an impossible system by a faceless bureaucracy, Ridgway’s narrator finds threat and confusion in the ordinary world, the one the rest of us seem to manage in just fine. Or as he would put it, “None of this is true.” - John Self
Keith Ridgway, The Parts, Faber & Faber, 2003.
"Set in present-day Dublin, The Parts interweaves six lives and six narratives. In her mansion in the mountains, millionaire widow Delly Roche is getting ready for death. Keeping her company are her companion of many years, Kitty Flood, and the discreetly insane Dr. George Addison-Blake.
So why is Delly so keen to die? What exactly is in the letter discovered by Kitty? What is Dr. George doing in the shed by the tennis courts? And does any of it have anything to do with the conspiracy theories being hinted at on Joe Kavanaugh's radio show? Down in the city, Barry, Joe's producer, is getting caught up in something and he's not quite sure why. And all the time, conducting business down by the river, doing his best to keep out of this, is Kez.
Something is about to occur."
“Not partially, but entirely, genius.” – Jamie O’Neill
“Funny. Gorgeous. Tender. Angry. Absurd. Tough. And beautifully written. A novel about story-telling, loss, regret, greed, and the human dilemma of memory, The Parts is the sort of book that will take the oxygen out of the air for readers of Eugenides, DeLillo, Hemon, Zadie Smith and so many others.” –Colum McCann
"Dublin is a city built not just of bricks and stone, but of words … Keith Ridgway’s literary heritage is Dublin, his ancestors are its great verbal architects, and his third novel contributes to its mythical texture … Ridgway’s novel is an aria not only to the beautiful catastrophe that is Dublin, but also to the fractured capital of the heart.” - Time Out
“Ridgway indulges in rich, exuberant description of those small moments of hesitation, indecision, fear and confusion on which hinge the real action of people’s lives, his swift-footed style allowing him to do so with elegance and breathtakingly funny accuracy.” - Anthea Lawson
“… this is a novel that simply bursts with energy and incident, with a crowded cast of vivid characters and some enormously enjoyable comic scenes. In that respect one might conclude that The Parts is its own happy ending, a ringing affirmation of our ability to find something in each other’s stories – at least when they are so ebulliently well told.” - Michael Kerrigan
“There is nothing obvious about The Parts , nothing predictable. It’s a full book, managing to be many things at once – contemporary and timeless, with places specific and universal, and underpinning it all, like a flickering beacon of hope, is an understated, welcome humanity.” - Joanne Hayden
“The are wonderful comic payoffs involving salted pistachios and a very nasty Versace top, while the panoramic ending snags your breath. It’s also a kind of hymn to dirty oul’ Dublin, a city like “a million kittens in a sack, down by the river”. Ridgway brilliantly identifies its squirming appeal.” - David Jays
"On an isolated estate outside of Dublin, Delly Roche, a fabulously wealthy widow, longs for death and an escape from the memory of her infidelity. She is cared for by her enormously obese companion of 20 years, romance novelist Kitty Flood, and by her adopted son, Dr. George Addison-Blake, who may or may not be deranged. Meanwhile, in a seedier section of town, rent-boy Koz is being wooed by nervous, kindly producer Barry, who wants to date him but is too shy to say so and also wants him to appear on a new, hard-hitting radio show. The show's host, Joe Kavanaugh, is struggling to right himself after succumbing to a noisy, dissolute midlife crisis. These days, Joe's greatest wish is to befriend his gentle immigrant neighbors, who regard him with a certain amount of horror. In gorgeous, discursive prose, Ridgway brings the six characters together in a convoluted plot fairly brimming with paranoia; explosive, bitter humor; and heartbreak. Challenging and often exhilarating reading that offers a shimmering, multifaceted portrait of contemporary Dublin." - Joanne Wilkinson
"With six narrative voices to marshal through the many layers of a city that is itself a "plural proper noun", it's no wonder Keith Ridgway resorts to symbols on the page to herald which looping, chattering consciousness he is currently inhabiting. There's a knife and fork for Kitty, the obese blocked novelist; a radio for Joe, the DJ in the grip of a self-regarding mid-life crisis; a mobile phone for Kez, the teenage rent boy with the multiple identities and getaway bag hidden under his bed. Delly, Kitty's bedridden, moneyed lover, gets a house; her adopted son Dr George, a mad, bad, dangerous medic, a car; and Barry, Joe's producer, the icon of a little man. A likeable guy with no more than the average bundle of neuroses, fears and longings, caught up with drama queens and maniacs, he is indeed the book's most human and engaging character. Their Dublin, drawn by Ridgway with a precise urban poetry, is a city of many moods and faces: "Working Dublin, queer Dublin, junkie Dublin... mother Dublin, culchie Dublin, Muslim Dublin..." It's also, as anyone who has lived there knows, an incredibly small place. "You know everyone. You just don't know you do." Sometimes it seems to Kez that every man in Dublin will eventu ally turn up to buy sex from him; that he's having sex with the city itself.
Were there continents between the characters rather than just the Liffey, narrative convention would still assure us that their paths will cross, especially after an impressionistic prelude that swoops above the city catching the six in poised tableaux. In fact, the correspondences Ridgway draws between his characters are stitched into his loose, rolling narrative at a subtler level: repeated words, similes, nuances, dreams. In the heart of the city, Kez plays dead on the orders of a punter; in her big house up in the hills, Delly, tormented by memory and guilt and desperate for easeful death and the shutting down of consciousness, does the same for her own comfort.
Meanwhile, up in the attic Kitty pours her storytelling urges into alternate identities prowling internet chatrooms, and down in the basement Dr George searches for the truth behind his parentage - a quest that involves violence, porn and chloroform disguised as poppers. Back in town Joe, abandoned by his wife and daughter and suffering from a "post Catholic, Celtic Tiger, Celtic Wanker kind of third rate guilt", tries to turn his personal crisis outwards by picking his talk show guests from Dublin's seedy underbelly. In the interests of research Barry, whose very reasonable priorities in life are a boyfriend and a nicer flat, goes down to the quay to pick up a rent boy willing to discuss his profession on air - and finds, and falls for, Kez.
Despite an incriminating letter discovered in the early pages, and an almost unnoticed disappearance, hundreds of pages pass before the characters begin to mingle and the engine of the plot - an impressively vast conspiracy theory or, as one character puts it, a "bad episode of The fucking Avengers " - stirs briefly into life and then splutters out again. "Death", the title of the novel's second section, gives us fair warning of a change of narrative gear, but not until the final pages is light thrown upon the huge, accumulated mass of disparate detail that has gone before. As The Parts shores up its quotidian particulars we learn the McDonald's menu that made up Kitty and Delly's first dinner together, down to the sizes of their respective fries; the contents of Joe's glove compartment; the price of his walking stick. Anecdotes, reminiscences, comic set pieces and sexual subplots stretch their wings within the elastic storyline. In this novel, getting to the point is not the point.
The narrative, though, is far from random; Ridgway may resist closure, but he begins and ends with the same line. The theme of memory, the reconciliation of all our selves, chimes throughout, as the characters hover between "the fuzz of standing still" and "the ringing clarity of movement". Ridgway's earlier work also dipped into different streams of consciousness; in The Parts he is a master at tracking the sinuous twists and turns of our thought patterns, the castles in the air we are constantly building and rebuilding, and the bathetic intrusion of blunt reality. The novel, in all its wry black comedy, is about the disparity between our perspective on the world and the face - cool, passionate, mocking, loving, always surprising - it turns towards us.
Ridgway's agile prose, his ability to choreograph grand operatic tragedy and everyday sadness, urgent impersonal sex and a difficult first date, procrastination and action, has created a busy novel, humming with life. It realises the bold promise of his previous award-winning if highly coloured books, The Long Falling and Standard Time, and shows a welcome new lightness of touch. Whether mapping the mores of gay Dublin with an unshowy, up-to-the-minute flair or turning a mobile phone - that problem of modern plotting - into a cunning narrative advancement, it's evident that Ridgway is relaxing into his talent, enjoying the ride." - Justine Jordan
Keith Ridgway, The Long Falling, Houghton Mifflin - Mariner Books, 1998.
"The Long Falling is the most notable down payment on posterity, and the finest debut novel, I’ve read in years." - Scotland On Sunday
"a book as hauntingly expressive as a church bell at midnight … stunning." - The Independent On Sunday
"…these are incendiary issues, that Ridgway seamlessly folds into a story that is at times excruciatingly suspenseful…" New York times Review of Books (Selected as a NYT Notable Book of the Year)
"Ridgway lends his domestic tragedy almost operatic proportions." - San Francisco Chronicle
Complex, harrowing … narrative skill, mastery of language, a humane insight into the muddles people make of their lives." - The Times
"Sin and salvation are the two themes of Keith Ridgway’s wonderful first novel…Ridgway knows how to tell a story, but the strength of the novel is in its insightful and compelling emotional details. Succinct, poetic, and emotionally shattering, The Long Falling is not simply a fine debut, but the beginning of an illustrious career." - Gay Studies Editor, Amazon.Com
"In the character of Grace Quinn, Ridgway has succeeded in creating, with considerable intelligence and sensitivity, nothing less than the tragic heroine of our time." - Michael Hogan
"When I rule the world, the list of authors everyone must read (yes, you’d better start taking notes) will include Keith Ridgway. I’ve read three of his five books; I am rationing them. But you don’t need to buy them from £0.01 on Amazon Marketplace to see how well he writes. His blog posts show it: try him on old Nazis, on honey cake, on rent boys and Metropole, on The Kindly Ones, on Alone in Berlin (covering the last much better than I did). Yet at the time of writing, all his books have Amazon sales ranks – that handily specious guide to success – pushing the one million mark. It’s a world gone wrong.
The Long Falling (1998) was Ridgway’s first novel – after the novella Horses – and won two literary prizes in France, which shows that they have better taste than we do. If Horses was John McGahern with – forgive me – attitude, then The Long Falling, with its depiction among other things of contemporary gay Ireland, must be Colm Tóibín: the Director’s Cut. In fact, the gay interest and the political currents are secondary to a strong portrayal of a woman in crisis, worthy of my old friend Brian Moore. (And that is the last time I will liken him to another writer; Ridgway is gifted enough to be a point of comparison himself.)
Grace Quinn has lost both her sons. Sean died as an infant when a moment’s inattention allowed him to crawl into a ditch and drown; her other son, Martin, left home in the Cavan town of Cootehill after telling his parents who he really is, and getting the expected response from his father (‘I mean that I’m gay.’ ‘Queer?’ ‘Gay.’ ‘There’s no such word. Not that way. It’s queer.’ Then: ‘Your mother killed the wrong fucking one, that’s for sure’). Martin goes to Dublin. Grace is left alone, with a violent husband (what is it about the Irish? Great writers and bastards for dads. Is there some link?) and little sympathy from the locals.
Everybody knew her husband, and everybody knew her. Neither of them was liked. She, initially, because she had come from England, he because of his manner. Now he was not liked because of what had happened, and she because she was his wife.
“What had happened” is that Grace’s husband knocked down a girl with his car and killed her. “Grace could not afford to fix the front of the car. She drove it as it was, reminding everybody. People did not like her for that.” Two deaths, one estrangement, domestic violence (“He would punch, and he would throw me. He could pick me up and throw me”): enough tragedy, right? Wrong: this is literary Ireland. Room for a little more. So Grace hits her crisis, runs into it with her eyes open, and moves to Dublin to stay with Martin.
Imagine falling from a great height. Without panic. Imagine taking in the view on the way down, as your body tumbles gently in the air, the only sound being the sound of your progress. Your progress. Imagine that it is progress to fall from a great height. A thing worth doing. Though it is not a thing for doing. You do nothing, you simply allow it to happen. Imagine relaxing into the sudden ground. Imagine the stop.
We don’t have to imagine it, as Ridgway has done that for us, and gives us Grace’s long falling, her time of “trying not to break open”, in perfect detail, told from different points of view. One reviewer calls it “the Irish Crime and Punishment.”
She is thrown into the life of the city, where the Celtic tiger (remember that?) is just beginning to drag 1990s Ireland into the modern world. Her son takes her to a gay bar (while he visits a bath house alone: “They were all ages, walking to and fro, naked but for their towels, some carrying keys, some cigarette boxes, all with the same look. Just eyes. They looked like men given some terrible task. They wanted it over with”). But Ireland has been backward too long to crawl forward without a fight. There are beggars and drunks all over the place. Everyone in Martin’s liberal, secular circle is getting agitated about the ‘X case’, where the Irish Attorney General obtained an injunction to stop a 14-year-old rape victim from travelling abroad to get an abortion. The case provides a political backdrop for modern Ireland’s birthing pains.
Meanwhile, Martin is fretting about his lover, Henry, and what he might be up to in Paris, even as he struggles to come to terms with his identity in a country still emerging from under the dead hand of religion. “The circumstances of his life had flowed from the way he wished to make love. From that clumsy declaration. I am what I want. I am this.”
The plot in The Long Falling slows down at times and takes tricky turns elsewhere, but by the end the feeling is of an inevitability playing out. It seems like a story you don’t so much read as watch. (Aptly enough, it’s being made into a film. Well: a French film.) The brilliant details and sharp dialogue don’t disguise the tragedy at the heart of the book. The past is not dead: it is not even past. We discover that Grace’s falling began long ago, when she met her future husband, and in the grand tradition ignored her parents’ advice (“Don’t go to Ireland. Do not go to Ireland”). Late in the book, Martin is interviewed by a policeman, who tells him, “You’re going to have to start from the beginning, Mr Quinn, if you don’t mind. I’m not sure I follow you.” “From where?” says Martin.
“Where’s that?” - John Self
Keith Rudgway, Standard Time, Faber & Faber, 2002.
"These stories are full of old fashioned satisfactions; gripping and beautifully written. Ridgway doesn’t so much redraw the map as show us what was there in the first place. He writes as though he has uncovered something, not invented it; as though these tales, so completely new, have been around for a long time." - Anne Enright
"It is refreshing to read work of a quiet, contemporary tone, but which prods at the depths beyond the comfort zone. He has a supple hold of brittle things" - Frank Ronan
“Ridgway writes convincingly and with quiet certitude about the contemporary Irish experience as lived in Ireland and abroad … a book to salute and treasure.” - Dermot Bolger
“The powerful, memorable stories in Standard Time resonate with uncluttered sensibility and insight. The Problem with German , in which a young man goes to Germany to visit his boyfriend, is a superb portrait of modern relationships and of the experience of insecurity. Ridgway has the rare gift of being able to hold up to the light fragile things that in other hands would break." - Rachel Cusk
“Ridgway’s stories reflect better than any work we have come across the tension between the new wealth of Dublin and the underbelly of poverty. The pacing and control of the cast of characters living out life in Dublin of the time are manipulated with the confidence of an experienced hand.” - In Dublin
“Perhaps his stories strike a chord because he gives words and shape to those feelings that are just beyond our ken, just vanishing round a corner and yet palpable all the same. It is at times difficult and challenging to have to engage with this strange vision of our world. It is, though, worth it in the end.” - Sunday Business Post
“The Irishman’s stories are artful indeed – literary, yet not too showy, with a rolling, gathering cadence that is mesmerising. The circumstances he examines are wonderfully odd. Unusually for such a stylish, descriptive writer, Mr Ridgway is also a master of action.” - The Economist
“Echoing Joyce’s Dubliners , this sequence of urban vignettes is strained with the rueful poetries of love and squalor. It succeeds in mapping the districts and precincts of Dublin to sketch a striking portrait of the city, valedictory in spirit, yet brimming with edgy drama.” - Express
“Keith Ridgway is a talented writer, whose chief concern in these twelve stories is to set his verbal facility against his characters’ confinement in time and place. His sentences are blessed with an energetic imperative. His pacing is faultless, as is his choreography of violence, of gestures towards tenderness and of “the noise of the world spun out as a kind of song”.” - Times Literary Supplement
“Keith Ridgway’s stories leave you in no doubt you are in the presence of something weighty and profound – a rare experience with the contemporary short story. He offers a fresh perspective on what lies visible in human behaviour and throws light on what is hidden.”- London Metro
“The most surprising and satisfying stories are, curiously, the quietest in tone, concerned with ordinary, terrifying lives… Ridgway writes with feeling and near-absolute accuracy.” - Time Out
“A wry humour often informs Ridgway’s writing and also a gentle understanding of the nuances of human relationships. He is undoubtedly a gifted writer, adept at creating complex, convincing characters in writing that is fluid and un-showy. But perhaps his greatest achievement is the Dublin he evokes: familiar yet still mysterious, teeming with life, but always full of secrets.” - Irish Times
Keith Ridgway, Horses, Faber & Faber, 2003.
Horses is the story of a storm, and of grief and arson and revenge. A priest a doctor and a policeman, on a single wild night south of Dublin, struggle with the unpredictability of a teenage girl, and a man with no shoes.
An adaptation of Horses was broadcast over 5 episodes on BBC 7 during March 2004. It was performed by Owen Roe and produced by Heather Brennon.
This beautifully taut tale conjures up the elemental, rural Ireland that, understandably, still haunts much of the country’s sensibility and literature. - The Independent
"Keith Ridgway’s Animals has stuck with me, in the three years since I read it, so firmly and so fondly that it’s a wonder I didn’t saddle it with the meaningless privilege of being one of my books of the year 2007. It’s a wonder too that it took me so long to revisit him, and that I did so only after finding a copy of his first book Horses in a secondhand shop while on holiday last summer.
I say ‘his first book’, which is both true and misleading. In fact Horses was published in 1997 as part of a Faber anthology of new authors (in their First Fiction: Introductions series). After Ridgway established a medium-sized name for himself with bigger, standalone works (two novels The Long Falling and The Parts, and a story collection Standard Time), Horses was reissued in a slim solo edition – 80 pages long – in 2003.
Animals was a more or less indescribable thing – perm three from unreliable narrator, psychological horror, Kafkaesque, black comedy, existential, absurdist – and having now read Ridgway’s earliest and latest published fiction, I can see just how far he’s come. But Horses remains a good book, and indeed with potentially wider appeal than Animals. It’s clearly the work of a young writer: how else to explain this perfectly polished, showpiece opening?
In the broad spaces of the streets near the square, Mathew stood and watched for the secrets which the rain reveals. In the air around the mountains he could see the clouds begin to form, to gather themselves like skirts held in, to muster and breathe deep and peer down the slopes to the place where people live, and plot a route. He saw them set off then with a tiny roll, and saw them pick up speed and press a silence out in front of them, and pick up speed again and canter quietly, billowing, and roll on into a gallop like a charge of black and ghostly horses, their hooves turning in the air, churning up a grey dust against the sun.
It’s prose with rhythm, timing, drive, perfect pitch and a few clever touches: the nod to the title, and the beginning of a subtle sleight of hand on the reader as to who, or what, Mathew is. As the first paragraph of a first publication, not half bad.
But it’s silly to damn such beauty as being indicative of immaturity: Ridgway can really write, that’s all. If struggling to find fault, one would do better to latch onto Julian Gough’s criticism of his Irish contemporaries, for “copying the very great John McGahern, in the 21st century.” Sure enough, Horses has McGahern qualities: the rural setting, the close-knit community, the febrile relationships, the broodings – resentment, regret, revenge – at the heart of many motivations.
Even then, Horses stands on its own four feet, not least because the violence and bloodletting which seeps through it would never have suited McGahern’s low-key style, or at least would not be put on the page so splashily. Here, things happen not only in the past but in the present too. Mathew Doyle (“unsuited for the world”) is believed to be responsible for a series of arson attacks on local buildings, including one which killed the horses so beloved of Dr Brooks’ daughter Helen:
Her hair fell over her eyes in wet ropes and she felt a pain in her heart, or where she thought her heart might be, or where it had been, for it was gone now, dead, smoke against the sky, with Poppy and Gepetto and Mountain Star.
As well as Mathew and Helen and her father, the remaining cast does not extend much beyond Garda Sweeney and Father Devoy (yes, yes, I told you), and the short, explosive nature of the story, with a lot of conversation and a little action too, makes it read at times like a play on the page. Alongside the reasoning adult minds of the doctor, the priest and the policeman, the heart of the story pits two unworldly souls against one another: Helen, who is distracted with grief (“[she] wondered whether you could be struck by lightning and swallow the power that had hit you and make it yours, so that your life would be electric bright and burning to the touch”), and Mathew, an innocent (“Terror sorry for the horses. Terror sorry”).
The tight, claustrophobic drama of Horses portends terrible things to come before its end – and great things to come from its author after that." - John Self
Keith Ridgway's web page