Friday, April 12, 2013

Book review: Hawthorn & Child

Keith Ridgway's Hawthorn & Child is a perplexing novel. That is, if you want to call it a novel. I'm not so sure the designation fits. Rather, Hawthorn & Child is a series of vignettes that, taken together, offer a disturbing and complex vision of dirty, seamy (and terrifying) London in the 21st century.

To the extent that the book has any discernible protagonists, they are the two eponymous mid-level detectives. Hawthorn is a lonely gay man, prone to fits of spontaneous weeping; Child is a hard-edged and sour black man who is losing the last vestiges of hope. But while many of the episodic chapters in the book feature one or both of these characters, many do not.

I selected this book for my book club solely on the strength of an article Ridgway wrote for the New Yorker that I read last summer. I was greatly impressed by Ridgway's prose and his clear articulation. And Hawthorn & Child demonstrates that his abilities on those scores are genuine. Consider this passage, which describes how an (unnamed) pickpocket and his girlfriend drifted in to sadomasochism:
They couldn't talk. They were not good talkers, either of them. And once, long ago now, she had bought a notebook for a course. It lay empty and forgotten on the kitchen table until one afternoon, when she had gone out to the shops and he was worried that she would be killed by a bus or by lightning, he opened the notebook and he wrote lines about how he loved her, the way he loved her, about his fucking heart and crap like that, about his body brimful and his scrambled head. All that. She came back from the shops. He left the notebook where it was, and he didn't mention it. And it wasn't until about a week later that he noticed it again, and he flicked it open, and he saw his lines followed by lines from her. She'd written words that she had never said. He sat down. He read them over and over for a long time. Then he wrote a paragraph for her to find.

This went on for ages before either of them said anything about it. But he thought that maybe they touched each other differently. It was like the book freed stuff up, allowed it to happen, that the tenderness was covered, they had it covered, they had all the love and kindness and gentleness covered, and the sex became something else.
Simple language, but deep thoughts. Much more is implied than described. These are signs of a skilled writer.

One of the more frustrating challenges of the book is that, with each new chapter, all of which are presented in limited third-person perspective, the reader must discern who is the subject. Many characters are not named. The reader must distinguish each by his thoughts.

The stories within the book vary widely. There is a coming-of-age story about an art-loving girl who finds love with a misfit schoolboy. There is the story about the aforementioned London pickpocket who drives a car for an Asian gangster and who delves into S&M sex with his girlfriend. There is a story of a religious psychotic with an interesting theory about the "lost years" of Jesus who finds himself in a strange house with a sleeping infant as the police surround his hiding place. There is an entire chapter that cuts between a gay orgy and a police action during a riot.

As I read, I expected that Ridgway would somehow tie all the stories together to illustrate some theme or leitmotif. So when I finished, I was perturbed to realize that there was none. London's Guardian newspaper referred to Hawthorn & Child as an anti-novel, and I'd say that's an apt description.

Ridgway, it seems to me, is trying to break new ground with this book. And I admire him for that. Hawthorn & Child is not like any other novel I've read. But I was vaguely dissatisfied at the huge gaps in the narrative, at the lack of resolution.

Ridgway's skills demand that I give him another try and I will. There's something worth investigating here.

What's this cat trying to get at?

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