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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 March 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Hugo Hamilton, relying to some extent perhaps from his own Irish-German background, uses a traditional but still no less effective means to examine modern Western society, lifestyles and attitudes through fresh eyes, by using an outsider alien to the culture and the finer points of language and behaviour - specifically here through the means of Vid Cosic, a Serbian immigrant looking for work and the chance to start a new life in Ireland - as a means to examine the less edifying attitudes that they often hide.

The book's opening line observation that "You have a funny way of doing things here" proves then to be an accurate one, with potential misunderstandings leading to some humorous incidents as well as more serious ones, pinpointing the fine dividing line between camaraderie and enmity, between joking and seriousness, between word and intent that lies at the heart not only of the nature of the Irish - although its observations here are sharp and pertinent particularly within a certain class - but in the normal everyday interaction of wider society, relating to people, families and friendships in general and particularly in how we each carry with us the weight of the past.

Vid Cosic is a personable and an interesting character to adopt in the making of such observations. Coming from Serbia, his family victims of the violence there, he himself has been injured in a car accident that he claims has made him forget much of his own past. Young and in a strange place, escaping from a violent conflict back home, he could be forgiven for seeing things in black-and white terms. The need to fit in however is a vital impulse within everyone and Vid's dilemma, as it is for everyone, is how far one must go to be accepted while retaining one's honesty, dignity and integrity. Even though he forms a close friendship with a lawyer, Kevin Concannon, and becomes a close friend of his family, Vid still seems to remain an outsider. It's as if all the troubles of the Irish seem to be expressed or reflected through the strained relationships of the Concannon family, where Vid is a welcome and helpful visitor, but one who is kept at a respectful distance by a culture and a past that he cannot completely comprehend. It's a distance however that also keeps the different generations of the Concannon family from relating to one another.

As interesting as these ideas and the central character are (and there are quite a lot of other relevant contemporary social issues raised in passing), it's the means that Hugo Hamilton chooses to illustrate the story through a contemporary violent incident and by one or two in the past, linking the underlying sentiments behind them, that give the novel an additional element of suspense and tension. Hand in the Fire is a wonderfully readable book then, one that has real characters facing real-life dilemmas to draw you in, but with the subtle touch of an insightful and brilliant writer capable of drawing out deeper elements of self-examination and recognition in relation to modern society and our place in it in a manner that any reader can identify with.
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VINE VOICEon 27 February 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Hand in the Fire is the story of the adventures and misadventures of a Serbian immigrant in Ireland. Our hero Vid Cosic is quite literally an innocent abroad.

Vid becomes involved in the life of the Concannon family. He is very helpful to them and they in turn treat him frankly appallingly. This is a dysfunctional family at war with itself and almost everyone they come into contact with. Much of the family's strife seems to have its origins in a quasi-mythical story of a female ancestor who drowned. This woman was pregnant and unmarried. There is much doubt surrounding her fate. Was it suicide or murder? Did a priest incite her death or not? This incident haunts the family but there are as many different versions as there are family members.

Vid's experiences with the family mirror those of many immigrants. The Concannon family reflect the behaviour of many host countries towards immigrants. At times they are welcoming. At others they exploitative and rejecting. Most of all they appear to be greatly resentful of what they regard as intrusion.

The novel works well with the Concannons being a metaphor for modern Ireland; both are haunted by their past (mainly because they cannot agree on the significance of that past). It is beautifully written with many lyrical asides on subjects as diverse as the attraction of pubs and eating ice cream on cold winter nights.

The most effective aspect is that the book gives the reader an outsider's perspective on the country fully exposing both its attractions and foibles. As Vid observes;

"You have a funny way of doing things here" .

This is a good novel for anyone interested in Ireland or the immigrant experience.
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on 14 July 2012
The title of the book refers to Concannon's definition of a friend - someone who will put their hand in the fire to protect someone regardless of the consequences. And this is the sentiment at the heart of the book, which explores the nature of friendship, family and the immigrant experience. It's a well written story, with some nice observations and insights. I'm not sure to what extent it was an Irish story though, which the opening lines strongly suggest it will be. Ireland is there, but more as a backdrop rather than as contextual arena. The plot is relatively straightforward and clearly telegraphed, though one suspects it was never meant to have a twist, being an in-depth study of relationship than a mystery, despite the hauntings of the violent attack and the drowned woman that surfaces throughout. The characterisation of Cosic is well developed, though he seemed overly naïve, pliant and childlike at times, to the point of lacking credibility, but Concannon remains something of an enigma. The reader is repeatedly told he is charming, but there is precious little evidence that that's the case, and one is left wondering why his long suffering girlfriend or Cosic tolerate his selfish and confrontational behaviour. It's not that he's not a believable character, but rather that the character that the reader engages with is not the same one that the other characters seemingly interact with, producing a strange dischord. Overall, I found it an interesting read, with some nice writing and observations, but the central relationship never seemed fully credible and the plot failed to really excite.
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VINE VOICEon 13 May 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It's interesting to look at a country and its people, especially your own, through the eyes of an outsider. Hugo Hamilton offers us the Vid Cosic, a Serbian now living in Dublin as our guide in this novel. Vid has little memory of his past, nor does he want it. Because of this he becomes more interested in the past of his new home and the people around him, namely the Concannon family. Kevin Concannon practically forces his friendship on Vid and brings him into the centre of his life. Vid cannot help but become interested and involved, only to find that the Concannon family isn't ready to deal with its own past.

Behind a lot of the story is another, that of an unmarried pregnant woman who was denounced by the church and whose dead body washed up on the Aran Islands many years early. This story seems to be based on truth, though the rest of the novel is fiction built around it. There seems to be a certain theme running throughout the novel, one in which everyone wishes to forget the mistakes taught by history only to repeat them (or nearly repeat them).

This is a good novel, well written and interesting. Hamilton portrays a contemporary Ireland (Northern Ireland included, for a little bit), one where history revolves around stories of rebellion and troubles, one where the sins are always of the fathers, one devoid of personal guilt.
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VINE VOICEon 14 May 2011
This author is very observant and descriptive, so that is a good thing, but the storyline I felt did become a little tedious. Vid is Serbian and has come over to Ireland and is feeling like an outsider. He meets a rather charming Irishman who commits an act that will have severe repercussions on Vid. To begin with Vid feels included and gains a sense of belonging; he feels honoured to have made such a good friend with a native Irishman, but things are not always as they seem, and he begins to realise that he has become sucked in to something that he does not quite understand. He starts to question his loyalty to this man, and sees things that make him realise that there is a darker side. However, with the guile of a gifted womaniser and all-round charmer Kevin manages to somehow bring Vid around. Slowy but surely, the scales begin to fall from Vid's eyes. He has been used and he is dispensible, or is he? This is not a long book, but probably could have been shorter still. There is just something not quite connecting it into becoming a really good read.
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VINE VOICEon 27 May 2010
The strength of 'Hand in the Fire' is the detachment that Hamilton developed in his loosely autobiographical works `The Speckled People' and `The Sailor in the Wardrobe'. But instead of using the child's view of Ireland, growing up half-Irish and half-German, he makes the central character a Serbian immigrant and carpenter, Vid Cosic.

Vid gives us a take on modern Ireland that is a mixture of puzzlement and affection, his confusion brought into sharp relief by a violent incident that draws him closely into the affairs of the Concannon family, and into a plot taking us from Dublin to a washed up and pregnant corpse on one of the Aran islands.

Anyone expecting another `Speckled People' or `Sailor in the Wardrobe', which are far richer books, may be disappointed but nonetheless entertained by a fine writer.
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VINE VOICEon 3 March 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a novel about belonging and displacement. Its narrator, Vid, is a Serb in modern Dublin, trying to fit in. Another character, Jack, is trying to get back to the place and family where he once belonged, and is very sensitively drawn.

The lawyer Kevin, though, is totally at home in his time and place and when he seems to befriend Vid, the emigre is grateful for this apparent acceptance. It's understandable that Vid, working in a different language and culture, does not at once see what is clear to the reader, namely that Kevin is a total bastard. But Kevin's girlfriend Helen is similarly blind. We are told that the reason they put up with him so long is, in both her case and Vid's, that Kevin has a lot of charm. Unfortunately nothing we see of him convinces me of that. It isn't really enough to be told the man has this fatal charm; we need to see it, which I don't think we do. Kevin is a perfectly believable character; he just isn't the one Helen, Vid and more importantly the author see.

My other, related, problem is the ending. Firstly, this depends on Kevin doing something that seems unlikely for him. Secondly, it's one of these "Travelling to the West and Having an Epiphany" endings and I'm not sure how it resolves anything or gives any closure.

The writing is fluent and pacy and the characters mostly believable. But the ending didn't work for me.
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VINE VOICEon 8 March 2010
I thoroughly enjoyed this book which explores what it is like to be an immigrant trying to fit in to a strange society. In this case a Serbian national called Vid is befriended by a troubled Irish family in Dublin called the Concannons. Hugo Hamilton vividly explores what it is like to give and receive the wrong signals through understanding and misunderstanding language and colloquialism. This misreading of the signals gets Vid into trouble with the law but ultimately enriches his understanding of himself and the people he befriends.

This a very human story brought vividly to life in fine prose by Hugo Hamilton and a highly recommend it.
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on 9 August 2011
"... Like friendship, for example. Nobody does friendship like you do in this country." The way friendship is offered, or withdrawn, in an "all or nothing" way.

These opening sentences in Hugo Hamilton's new novel, "Hand in the Fire", set much of the tone and theme in this thought-provoking story of one man's unrelenting efforts to fit in and make a home for himself in a new country: Ireland. Vid Cosic (accents not shown), a recent immigrant from Serbia, recounts his observations and reactions to his new surroundings that reveal as much his bemusement as his confusion. He approaches people with a naïve trusting innocence, willingly participating in whatever activities he is invited to. Insecure in his own judgement of what he observes, he, nonetheless, carries a strange sense of foreboding of a disaster that he might cause without intending to, due to his "misreading" and "mishearing" of people's language and gestures. Drawing on his personal experiences of growing up in a two-language and two-culture family, surrounded by a predominant third, Hamilton is familiar with this sense of "alienation", of not belonging to the society in which he lived. His mother was German, his father a staunch Irish nationalist, who forbade the use of English and insisted on writing the family name in the Irish way. His childhood memoir, The Speckled People, captures his own experience brilliantly. Effortlessly, Hamilton slips into the mind of Vid, who has not - yet - developed any of the inner protective sensors that are required to discriminate between what is true and what is false or exaggerated, how to avoid misinterpreting what is being meant rather than said. Starting with his strong central protagonist in a midst of a whole range of well depicted diverse individuals, the author builds an increasingly dramatic story that delves into fundamental themes of friendship and loyalty, rejection and betrayal, and above all, the vital need to belong: to a family, to a place and to a country.

Coincidence and a violent encounter outside a pub, tie Vid's life together with that of Kevin, a young, ambitious lawyer. Surprisingly for Vid, an immediate friendship develops: "A true friend was somebody who would put his hand in the fire for you." Vid believes Kevin's definition even when their friendship is heavily tested. Even more so, after Kevin offers him work in his mother's house, thereby suggesting an opening into "joining" a family. Vid captures Kevin's character with a few effective descriptions, pointing out the parallels between them: "never look back... Like me, his aim was to escape. Only, he made it look like fun. All the bad things erased." Vid is a contented man, until the recent past catches up with him and Kevin... Later on he muses: "I didn't know what was so funny, until I realized that being treated like one of the family was maybe not always the best thing you could hope for..."

Vid's growing involvement with Kevin's family, the Concannon, brings out deeply held secrets and, without really understanding why, Vid turns into a quiet private eye. In particular, the mystery of a pregnant young unmarried woman's untimely death by drowning, preoccupies him. It happened a couple of generations earlier and the information is scant and only reluctantly given. Interspersing Vid's pursuit of the old story, Hamilton touches on social behaviour patterns, prominent then, yet still reaching into the present of the novel. It is evident that more than an uneasiness remains in the family's actions. Eventually Vid meets the man who can shed more light on the past and who offers him a different kind of friendship.

How can an offer of friendship be more movingly and poetically captured than by the description of a handshake? "...It was asking me to believe him, to trust him, to speak well of him. A handshake of ten verses... His hand contained the entire journey of his life... All the stories and memories, the laughs and triumphs and failures and injustices... A handshake that remained imprinted on my hand long after I had walked back down the street." In him, Vid finally finds a person with whom he can share his own emotional baggage, that he has carried since he fled Serbia, barely alive.

In a recent interview Hugo Hamilton suggested that this novel is for him, in many ways, an extension of his own earlier memoirs. The sensitivity in which he captures Vid's perspective stands out for me. As an immigrant(twice) myself, I relate very personally to the way in which Hamilton illustrates Vid's perspective and his sense of being "in between places, neither here nor there." Among the many fictionalized accounts depicting the lives and struggles of new immigrants, I have not come across any that is so predominantly focused on the new country and the immigrant's reflections as well as his active efforts, despite many obstacles, to fit in: " My problem was not having the language skills to stop things being straightforward, black and white. I was playing the duplicitous game of being myself." A exquisitely crafted novel that, while starting slowly, builds into a dramatic story around diverse and plausible characters and memorable scenarios, sustained by the thoughtful reflection on what it means to start a new life in a foreign country. [Friederike Knabe]
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VINE VOICEon 20 May 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It must be the easiest thing in the world at the moment if you're an author to write about immigrants. I mean, they offer such rich pickings in terms of the many points from which to come at those who come here; why have they come, what were they like before, how do they get treated, how do they feel, did they kill people...the list of questions around which you can build your story and characters is pretty much endless. And likewise the list of books appearing dealing with those increasingly tired queries.

So here we have the tale of an immigrant, Vid from Serbia in this case, which sets it's stall out in the first line; "You have a funny way of doing things here....". That could quite possibly be the most accurate summary of the whole book. Throughout the story Vid experiences numerous situations, feelings and other characters all of which allow him, from an outsiders point of view (for that is how he feels about life in Ireland and how he is treated at times) to examine not only what he and his family came from (although most of his memory, the early story tells us, was lost in an accident) but his life now, and the way people in his new land are with each other and with the issues that affect them.

This is all told through the main plot of the book in which Vid befriends an Irish lawyer and his family by means of a violent assault and a missing woman. It's a highly character-driven book, as you may be able to tell, and it's a pleasurable enough and well written read throughout. Vid is believable and fully formed as a character, although at times his narration strays so far from the plot of the book it's hard to remember quite where you were before he drifted off.

Ultimately, the thing that colours this book for me, tarnishes it even, is that it's obviously yet another book dealing with an immigrant, moving to the fabled west, feeling like a total outsider, then having an epiphany and everyone living, or perhaps not in this book, happily ever after. It's an obvious plot line to attack and when executed like this that obviousness grates a little. Hence, three stars.
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