I started reading Keith Ridgway's Hawthorn and Child on the recommendation of John Self, who was at the time embarking on an experiment to see how effectively a book could be drawn to people's attention through social media. John's enthusiastic championing of the book meant my expectations were high; equally, he'd been very clear about the type of book Hawthorn and Child is, so I knew roughly what to expect: an unconventional narrative structure, a lack, by most definitions, of discernible plot, and a book full of hints, allusions and clues that will have you endlessly pondering their significance. On the other hand, they might not be significant at all. In one chapter, a character eavesdropping on a conversation, remarks: "This banal banter seems so completely unconnected to anything I know about that I wonder if it's coded. Why would it be coded, you idiot? They've just just drifted off into life," a remark which rather mirrors my experience of reading the book at times.
If Hawthorn and Child reminds me of anything, it's Nicola Barker's Darkmans. Darkmans has more plot (to be frank, most books do) but, like Hawthorn and Child, it was a book I kept wanting to re-read so I could piece together more of the oblique references, the throwaway remarks and word choices that you suddenly realise might be meaningful - in Hawthorn and Child, there is a recurrent theme of confusion over words, of mishearing, of not being able to find quite the right terms. Hawthorn and Child also shares a similarly mundane setting, in which odd things happen. In the opening chapter, for instance, there is the odd suggestion that a man may possibly have been shot by a ghost car. Hawthorn and Child themselves are police officers who are pursuing a mysterious gangster, Mishazzo, but this is a million miles from a crime novel. In crime novels, everything is explained, everything neatly resolved, so that the solution to the mystery becomes the point. In Hawthorn and Child, almost nothing is resolved or explained. We're not even sure what crimes Mishazzo has committed, as most of what we see him and his sidekicks doing in the book has nothing to do with their criminal activity - driving from place to place, for instance, or making small talk.
"There are millions of explanations. There's an infinite number of explanations," Hawthorn points out, for it's Hawthorn who seems the more creative thinker of the two policemen, the more willing to explore the unlikely or the impossible and whose grip on reality isn't always firm. Child is the more pragmatic of the pair - if there are millions of explanations for things, he says, then he's not going to get roped into doing the paperwork.
More like a collection of inter-related short stories than a novel in many ways, Hawthorn and Child answers few questions, and leaves much unexplained, and yet each story, each baffling incident, seems complete and satisfying and yet often vaguely unsettling at the same time. The odd awkwardness, the sense of something strange unfolding, is rendered even more bizarre by Ridgway's sparse, matter-of-face prose style. If, like me, you're sometimes attracted to odd books that raise more questions than they ask, this is a novel for you. Read it, ponder it, read it again and spend endless hours trying to unpick it.
on 15 September 2013
After the classic detective novel set up, this rich, fresh and occasionally hilarious novel twists off into half-stories, loose ends and possible dreams.
on 21 January 2014
Reviews of this book seem to be pretty divided. Several parts of it were originally published as short stories and that does kind of come through. The book is a loosely connected set of stories which have some shared characters and events. Although it does have detectives, crimes and criminals it is not a standard crime or detective thriller in any way.
While it does not have a conventional plot, Hawthorn and Child does have some of the best writing I have read in years. It is challenging and obtuse in places but it is beautifully written throughout and left a lasting impression. I am keen to read some more of Keith Ridgway's work.
on 3 March 2014
Bits of this were excellent, a lot of it was gross and not much of it related to the almost non existent plot; especially towards the end. It has expanded my literary horizons and I think I enjoyed it! A book for contemplation and consideration, and definately not easy escapism.
on 21 September 2012
Generally I agree with the other reviewers, who at the time of writing have all blessed the book with 5 stars. What I wasn't sure of when I flipped over the last page was whether this amounted, ultimately, to more than the sum of its parts. It's not a novel in the traditional sense, more a sequence of short stories that bear a tangential relation to each other. Each section offers plenty in the way of character, and stylish writing, and could - as some already have - stand alone as short fiction. But....
Then again, maybe I have just lived a very sheltered life! I found myself struggling to imagine Hawthorn's gay rugby-style orgies, or get any sense of the oddly-named Mishazzo, whom they are ostensibly chasing, and the fantasy narrative of the wolves didn't work for me and seemed an odd inclusion.
Overall though I enjoyed reading it. In a world where the bestsellers are by and large unchallenging, this is original and intelligent, and also subtly funny. I would happily read other work by Ridgway, and bought 'The Spectacular', on the strength of this. 'Spectacular' is a related short story, and could easily have been another section in the novel, which seems to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the unusual structure.
on 19 July 2014
I think it possibly helped that I read this book whilst seriously sleep-deprived. Several of the characters are in a similar state and the book has a disjointed, dreamlike quality, with echoes and allusions of plotlines or characters recurring unpredictably as you progress. It might help readers to have a better recall of earlier chapters, then again, it might not. Other than a rather sweet, first-person coming-of-age chapter dropped incongruously into its midst, this is for the most part rather a disturbing read, but I found it oddly compelling.
on 5 July 2012
Hawthorn & Child was originally subtitled, on its publisher's website, `A Set of Misunderstandings'. The misunderstandings might begin in trying to define it. It's a series of stories which is really a novel, about two London police detectives and the people they encounter. It begins with an unsolvable mystery, when a young man is shot from a passing car on a quiet north London street. The brief information provided by the victim as he lies on the hospital table ("They poked and peered at the body. They tubed the body and they hooked it up. They shifted and bound the body") becomes the bedrock of a police investigation, a grand structure spun around no more than air. This is a book which is all about the details: the ones we don't know, the ones we invent to replace them, and the exquisite ones Ridgway provides us with along the way. Details, like this brief phone exchange between Hawthorn and his brother, which speaks of years in a couple of lines:
--How's the thing?
Hawthorn made a face and looked out of the window.
The imprecision of language is everywhere. Here, Hawthorn's brother wants to ask but can't bring himself to be specific. Elsewhere, when investigating the shooting, Hawthorn and Child take a witness's response to a question ("Not really") as an opening, when really it's just a loose end. They are desperate to make things fit. "We usually don't decide anything about things that don't fit. They just don't fit. So we leave them out." In this, they are like all of us, even when we are reading this book and trying to join together the pieces of the narrative. (Ridgway: "We want to tell ourselves and our days and our lives as stories, and these things are not stories.")
In some of the sections, the title characters are central. Child finds himself in a hostage negotiation with a young man who seems to be in a religious cult of one, and whose sense of identity is mangled. Hawthorn, straining for human contact, finds it - sort of - in a clever sequence which cuts between a riot and an orgy, and where it's not always possible to see which is which.
"There are certain things Hawthorn wants to do. There are things he doesn't want to do. The line between these things tickles him, like a bead of sweat down his back."
In other places, Hawthorn and Child are merely in the background, seen at a distance, or referred to. Ridgway gets around having to clunkingly name them by giving Hawthorn distinctive features that can be described by others: he cries a lot ("How's the thing?") and there's something, perhaps related, wrong with his face. "His face was crooked." "Like he was peeking through a keyhole." "He looks somehow off kilter." The risk here is that you get something like David Mitchell's scar identifier that joined the characters in Cloud Atlas, which looked tricksy and needless. Cloud Atlas, in fact, is not a bad starting point for comparison with Hawthorn & Child. With his book, Mitchell wanted to go further than Calvino had in If on a winter's night a traveller, by finishing all the stories he began. He did it, and the cumulative nimbleness was impressive; but I felt there was something missing in the heart region, and I wonder now whether the resolution of the stories contributed to it. Resolving a story can involve the author in so much contortion and knot-tying that the ugliness of the ending spoils the beauty that went before. Ridgway has been, I think, braver than Mitchell. The stories here are unresolved, but they are not incomplete. There is nothing missing, no sense that the stories peter out. The narrative pull within each one is strong, and they all leave you wanting more. What more could we ask for?
Underlying all this, or stretching over it, is the story of Hawthorn and Child themselves. This is not a buddy cop story. They are on the trail of a gangster, Mishazzo. They work together, with contrasting approaches. Hawthorn is unsubtle, Child more solicitous: he gets on with people more easily; is happier, too. In their work, Child works things out, separates the possible from the fanciful. Hawthorn doesn't want to exclude the fanciful. He is searching for meaning, for something to put in the gaps. He thinks about things and people that might explain other things and other people to him. He "thought about men, various men, whom he moved about his mind experimentally like furniture." These enquiries are futile, though that is their purpose. A narrator of one of the stories says, "Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided and over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us." That narrator, from the story `How We Ran the Night', is thoroughly unpleasant, and somehow frightening. ("I think of Trainer hanging in his attic. It must be worth knowing, what makes a man do that.") There is a fair amount of shiver-inducing nastiness in Hawthorn & Child, including as many ugly deaths as you might expect in a book about policemen. Yet there is tenderness all the way through, not least in the grudging pity I felt for Hawthorn. His tragedy in a minor key makes him one of the strongest fictional creations I've encountered in some time.
Hawthorn & Child exhaustively answers the question: What do you want from a book? There are likeable characters too: in `Goo Book', a story of the thoughts that lie too deep to say in Mishazzo's driver's love affair (first published in The New Yorker); and in `Rothko Eggs' (first published in Zoetrope All-Story). There are plots and stories, page-turning and teasing. There is innovation -- it is structurally bold, and eye-opening in subject matter (a premiership referee who sees ghosts would fit that bill). It kicks the reader out of their comfort zone. It has lines that zing and lines that hum, as in the voice-driven `Marching Songs', which as a sustained piece of fictional prose, could hardly be bettered. Could it? Read it yourself.
Does anyone remember The Gentle Touch? It was a British TV police drama that had many threads in the story - some were endings, some were beginnings but only one thread ever ran from start to finish in the episode.Well, Hawthorn and Child is a bit like that - except without the completed thread. There are beginnings, ends and middles with only vague themes to hold them together. Most, for example, have a cameo appearance by Detective Hawthorn or Detective Child, jobbing police detectives, or perhaps both. But not all the threads do. Oh, and Hawthorn is gay.
So what actually is this book?
For an answer, we might look at Keith Ridgway's history. He is a published short story writer with the excellent Standard Time collection under his belt, and both Animals and Horses feel like short stories. The Parts was a collection of multiple threads and multiple narrators interleaved. His only regular novel is The Long Falling, a sort of Colm Toibin lookalike. It is clear that Hawthorn and Child is, in fact, a collection of short stories that have been packaged together as a novel - presumably to assist sales. And as a collection of stories telling the story of a city (north London) it is pretty good. It is, perhaps, the novel that Booker longlisted Communion Town aspired to be. But, as with so many short story collections, Hawthorn and Child struggles to be memorable.
There are nods to other works. For a while, it feels as though Ridgway is nodding towards Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman; towards the end there seems to be more of a feel of JM O'Neill's Duffy Is Dead. There's also a feel of Joyce's Dubliners. So in terms of its aspirations, it aims high.
And some of the stories are really very good. Rothko Eggs is the masterpiece, leaving a conclusion that is unsaid but plain as day. The writing is controlled perfectly, drip feeding information and allowing the reader to share in the heroine's sadness. But this is balanced by a weird story involving wolves which seems to have no purpose at all. There are some leitmotivs - such as the menacing Mishazzo - that come up from time to time. Some characters from one story pop up again in another. But overall there is not enough substance to hang on to. Good though a story might be, it just evaporates once it is over.
Having read the book and had a general sensation of enjoying it, it is disappointing to find it has left no memory.
on 12 January 2016
Why have I given this book 3 stars? I don't know. Perhaps it's because I read it very quickly. But why did I read it very quickly? In a sense it's probably because I was trying to piece the jigsaw together to get to the plot. But by the time I reached the end I realised that this was not just one jigsaw but 1000 jigsaws all thrown in together. The pieces from each box mixing with each other. Making it impossible to draw a clear picture to see which one was the Snowdonia scene, which one was the village party, which one was the cricket match, which one was the whale about to vanish into the deep deep ocean?
I've now left the book in the 1000 thousand pieces that it is. But I ponder, I wonder if I'd read it again weather I would actually see that the whole novel is a fog.
on 4 July 2013
An experimental patchwork that is both compelling and irritating, self-conscious and sublime. A book to admire for its technique, rather than one that invites the reader to enter and suspend disbelief. Some of the language is stunning ('The boys...pushed laughter between themselves like a pool game - angles, rocochets, trick shots.'), some is stripped back to the point of laziness. The spread of ratings so far is a fair reflection of the quality throughout. Hard to recommend, but harder to dismiss.