‘A startling and fantastic book’ – Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgeway

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

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