Reading this book carried with it a certain sense of entering another blogger’s territory. John Self and I don’t share much in the way of reading tastes (though he does appreciate Christopher Priest); but he is one of the best, most insightful book bloggers around. One of the authors he’s always enthusing about is Keith Ridgway; so, when the opportunity arose to read Ridgway’s latest novel, I went for it.
Hawthorn & Child is just the sort of book I had in mind when I talked last month about coming to appreciate different literary aesthetics; its incoherence would have left me cold a few years ago, but now I can see more clearly what the book is doing. The title characters are police detectives, and therefore characters whom we would generally expect to bring coherence to the world – but Ridgway creates a study of lives refusing to cohere.
Structurally, the novel is fragmented: a series of story-chapters linked primarily (sometimes solely) by the presence of Hawthorn and Child, who even then are sometimes only minor characters. The first chapter sets the tone: the detectives investigate the shooting of Daniel Field a young investment bank employee, though Hawthorn’s mind is clearly wandering, and he behaves oddly enough that one has cause to question whether he’s up to the job (when he and Child visit the victim’s home, Hawthorn even ends up climbing into Field’s bed). Hawthorn makes notes, but of seemingly random things (such as ‘pools of light/pools of shadow‘ [p.19], describing street lights shining on the ground), and his other attempts at ‘detection’ also come across as empty rituals. The victim says he saw a car when he got shot, but the search for it comes to nothing, and there’s a strong suggestion that the car exists only in recollections and interviews (‘Just a shape,’ one character remembers seeing. ‘The back of a car. You know. The idea of a car’ [p. 20]). Ultimately, anything on which the investigation may be able to hang evaporates when looked at more closely.
For the second chapter, we shift to the viewpoint of a gangster’s driver, and it comes as quite a shock to see Hawthorn appear competent and efficient to the outside world. It creates a nagging sense that we can’t really rely on anything in the novel; for example, perhaps Child (whom we only ever see externally) is putting up a front as much as Hawthorn – we’ll just never know.
Throughout Hawthorn & Child, possibilities and realities are glimpsed, then disappear. Attempts to impose some sort of shape on the world – such as one narrator’s paranoid political conspiracy theory, or a manuscript purporting to describe a wainscot society of wolves in the interstices of the city – come to nothing. Even a character like the gangster Mishazzo, who’s in the background of several chapters and whom we see more clearly, is still ultimately elusive. Ridgway tells all in dextrous prose that consists largely of grimy details and sentence-fragments, occasionally bursting into more flowing narratives which evoke different kinds of character.
Hawthorn & Child is a tale of mysteries – and lives – unsolved. Its final vision is of the two detectives breakfasting in Child’s house:
They ate in silence and the windows rattled as a bus went by, and in the time they shared there was no time. No time at all. [Hawthorn] could remember nothing of what had gone before, and he could think of no possible future. (p. 282)
No moment of triumph here, but the world petering out into stasis. It’s a fitting end to Ridgway’s novel – whilst also, of course, being no end at all.