Review: ‘Hawthorn and Child’ by Keith Ridgway

—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.

Amazon: Hawthorn and Child

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