Keith Ridgway’s fifth novel, Hawthorn & Child, is set in a London milieu of criminals and detectives that seems superficially familiar by virtue of decades of TV drama. His novel, however, is far more interesting and unpredictable.
Hawthorn & Child has attracted great acclaim from other writers. While it’s always better to be suspicious of any positive praise from one writer to another, in this case the blurbing writers highlight the main thing that makes this novel great: its glorious strangeness. Zadie Smith calls it “idiosyncratic and fascinating;” Ian Rankin declares it “brilliantly weird.” Both are absolutely correct. Hawthorn & Child is one deliciously weird confection.
The reader can either approach Hawthorn & Child as a novel with no resolution, or a collection of short stories that share a location and some characters. It is equally enjoyable from either point of view.
Hawthorn and Child are detectives in modern (or perhaps mythical) London. One is a single, gay man, the other a married, family man. They investigate various crimes around the city: a man is shot from a passing car for no discernible reason, a petty criminal goes off the rails and accidentally takes a baby hostage, and a shadowy businessman named Mishazzo roams through the city, always attracting police attention, but it’s unclear what exactly his business is.
Various characters come center stage in different chapters, and each sheds new light on events or characters from other chapters. The tale of a young man who begins driving for Mishazzo, his slow descent into a nervous breakdown, is particularly well-told, and oddly gripping.
Don’t go into Hawthorn & Child expecting a standard detective novel; there is little resolution to be found. But the slightly surreal atmosphere, the slow accretion of personal detail from story to story, and the world-weary personalities of the central detectives make the book an oddball joy to read.
Keith Ridgway gives us a clue to making sense of the book — or at least his approach to writing — with a comment on the back cover: “Certainty is the enemy of understanding.” There may be little certainty in this story, but there’s also no lack of incident, surprise, tension, and touching human emotion. If, as this declaration suggests, the author sees few certainties in life, he does at least understand the difficulties, joys, and challenges of being human at this time and in this urban milieu.
Perhaps any understanding of our fellow man is the closest we can come to certainty in the modern world.
Other Irish novels I’ve enjoyed lately include:
Ghost Moth by Michèle Forbes
The Gamal by Ciarán Collins
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
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