TagKeith Ridgway

A Shock by Keith Ridgway

I loved Keith Ridgway’s previous novel, Hawthorn & Child. It was a key book in helping me appreciate different types of writing, in that it dissolved narrative coherence as it went along. So I was really looking forward to Ridgway’s new book, A Shock. I found a similarly fragmented structure, but a warmer, in the end more hopeful, tone. 

The nine story-chapters of A Shock are set around the same community in south London, with some overlapping characters. It’s the overlap that creates a sense of connection: loose and precarious, but persisting despite everything the modern world throws at it.

In the opening ‘The Party’ (which you can read on the New Yorker website), we meet an old woman at home while her neighbours are hosting a loud party. She’s lived an eventful life that others can only guess at, but now time is standing still for her:

…here I am, the leftover part, the unresolved plot, the loose end, the woman in the house, the house in the woman, the cat, the unkempt garden, the clothes in the wardrobe that she cannot throw out and cannot wear, the furniture she moves so that she can forget, and moves back again so that she can remember, and remembering anyway whatever she does, lost in a little roundabout life… 

All this woman really wants, one senses, is to be able to tell her story to someone. The yearning that comes through in this piece is powerful. 

Elsewhere in the novel we find different kinds of stories being told or withheld. In ‘The Camera’, we meet friends Stan (who’s white) and Gary (who’s black). Gary talks about wanting a new camera; when he gets one, he starts taking photos of Stan and posting them to him. Stan can’t seem to understand why Gary would do this, and his apparent inability to assume a straightforward explanation puts a strain on their friendship. “You get to clock off and I don’t,” Gary reminds Stan, seeing an all-too-familiar story being played out. 

In ‘The Joke’, Stan’s partner Maria pushes her bike up the hill to a different world, where she works as a library assistant in a private school. One of the teachers tells her a remarkable story that turns out to be a fabrication – an unwelcome reminder of life’s instability. 

OK, admittedly this isn’t sounding very hopeful. But there’s hope in A Shock if you look for it. Perhaps there will be someone in the Arms pub with a tale to tell. Maybe it takes a random moment of human connection – and it might be necessary to rely on the randomness. The world of A Shock is not an easy one for its characters to live in, but there are ways for them to hold on. Reading this is a vital experience. 

Published by Picador.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 10-6

Now we come to the top 10 books in my list of memorable reading moments. I wanted to say a bit more with these, so I’ve split the ten in half. The top 5 will be up next Sunday, but for now, please enjoy numbers 10 through to 6. These are all books I have never forgotten, and doubt I ever will.

You can also catch up on previous instalments of this project here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11.

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Keith Ridgway, Hawthorn & Child (2012)

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.

Elsewhere
Keith Ridgway’s website
‘Marching Songs’ – an extract from Hawthorn & Child

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