‘Hawthorne & Child’ by Keith Ridgway – A Review

I got this book on the basis of a recommendation from Isabel Costello and her literary sofa, and after hearing the author read some extracts at an event a couple of weeks ago.  He read very well, in a beautifully mellifluous tone which accentuated both the pathos and humour in an extract about one character’s obsession with the death  of a racing driver and the evil of Tony Blair, and I wanted to know more.

So, what of the whole book?  Hawthorne and Child are a couple of police detectives apparently straight out of the central casting mould of buddy cops, different from each other, but complimentary, who’ve worked together so long, they know all of each others foibles.  We first meet them as they embark on the investigation of a random early morning drive by shooting in a street in north London.  A standard opening chapter for any detective novel, a murder, the preliminary gathering together of the obvious clues.  But that is the only thing about this book which resembles standard detective fiction.

We never return to this murder, as each subsequent chapter focusses on a different set of protagonists; sometimes Hawthorne and Child are central, sometimes peripheral.  It feels like a loosely connected collection of short stories, as there is no central narrative thrust which runs through the book.

Maybe it’s about the impossibility of always being able to know a complete narrative of anything in real life, and of turning on its head the expectation that a novel will present a coherent story arc, and the mystery of other people and their stories; or maybe it’s challenging us to try to make sense of the unrelated fragments, making us aware of our need to make up or complete partial stories.  Or maybe it’s all taking place in Child’s imagination.  I’m not sure, and I suspect that is at least part of the point.

The writing is very clever and beautifully done, with wonderful phrasing and rhythm which worked so well at the reading, and it is this which kept me going towards finishing the book.  The sense of place, of the peripheral areas of north London is also recognisable and fully realised; but I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down at the end when the book simply stopped.

The main gift it gave me was to make me think about what I find satisfying in a book; yes, it’s about language inventiveness, vocabulary and rhythm; and yes, it’s about place and rounded characterisation, but I also want narrative tension, because without that itch to know what will happen next, it is far too easy to put the book to one side and to read something else instead.  As with any collection of stories, I don’t think it would matter what order you read the chapters in Hawthorne & Child, as one does not follow on from the other; it’s just that together they build up a picture of time and place.

I might be imagining it, but is there a mini trend at the moment for books of loosely connected stories to be published as novels?  I’m thinking of  Girl Reading by Katie Ward, which I enjoyed, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkos, neither of which I managed to finish.  Could this be because the commercial market for short fiction is so weak?  What do you think?

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