Scarlett Thomas, review of Hawthorn & Child, by Keith Ridgeway, in The Guardian (11 July 2012)

Details: Scarlett Thomas, review of Hawthorn & Child, by Keith Ridgeway, in The Guardian (11 July 2012) - available online [orig. date of access unknown]. Sub-heading: Scarlett Thomas enjoys a breathtakingly unpredictable anti-novel.

The other day I got an email from an agent saying he had never done this before but we (the email went out to his entire contact list) should all buy Keith Ridgway’s story “The Spectacular” for 99p from Amazon immediately because it was incredibly good. So I did, and it was. The story is set in the same fictional world as this novel, and I read it in one sitting, completely thrilled by the audaciously deceptive simplicity of both Ridgway’s writing and the story itself (literary author sells out to plot predictable A-format terrorist atrocity at the Olympics, only to be arrested in real life). It’s impossible to tell whether or not this story is an offcut from the novel, but in any case it’s included as part of the whole package when you buy this book on a Kindle. And it fits. Like everything here, it’s a story about stories in a novel that isn’t a novel.

About halfway through Hawthorn & Child we meet an editor character (who may also be a sex killer), who tells us: “I read stories all day long [...] I weigh characters in my hand like I am buying fruit. I purse my lips and roll my head on my shoulders and I suggest this and that. It would be more believable, the character would be more sympathetic, the story would flow better, the loose ends would be tied up if you did this or that or the other. And they do it. And people read these things. People actually read them from within their lives and the pages are numbered and the numbers are sequential.” Reading this book for plot – as if it were a novel – positions the reader alongside not just this editor, but the detectives at its centre. Hawthorn and Child roam across London trying to make stories out of things, despite the fact that things don’t always make stories. They look for plot and we look for plot. The punchline? There is no plot. The numbers are not sequential and you may as well keep on adding other stories for as long as you like.

Hawthorn and Child are just as likely to be eating breakfast in a café in the background of someone else’s story as they are to function as protagonists. When we first meet them, they have temporarily abandoned the gangster Mishazzo in order to investigate a shooting in which the victim thinks the perpetrator is a vintage car. Later, we meet Mishazzo’s driver. “Sometimes he just had to drive around in a circle, waiting for Mishazzo to emerge. Furniture shops, little lawyers’ offices, cafés, a house in East Ham. A minicab place in Walthamstow.” This unnamed character is one of the more engaging in the book. He and his girlfriend write each other love letters in a hidden notebook and spend much of the rest of their time experimenting with bondage. Then there’s the art-loving daughter of Chief Inspector Rivers, who has a sweet, coming-of-age chapter to herself and says of Jackson Pollock’s paintings: “They’re like the idea of having an idea, instead of having an idea.”

Ridgway’s best compositions can be breathtakingly unpredictable, as in the excellent chapter that juxtaposes policing a demonstration with having group-sex in a sauna. Hawthorn, the gay detective who cries often and for no reason, is at the heart of both these confusing and arousing encounters. In among all this is a disturbing, but brilliantly weird, anecdote about the death of a fat man. At his best, Ridgway is unapologetically strange. (Is there a secret band of wolves in London?) And the writing is perfectly assured and elegant. “Then Hawthorn looked back at him. Held his eyes. For exactly the amount of time it takes for a look like that to become a look like that.” Elsewhere, “People trickled out of the tube station like beads of sweat.”

But then there’s the really dark stuff: something like The Bill being directed by Braindead -era Peter Jackson and written up by Irvine Welsh. A baby is dropped down the stairs. A woman dies by simultaneously asphyxiating and burning to death (it’s not clear whether she did this to herself, or someone else was behind it). The editor peels skin off his victims. This world of missing connections is indeed like the actual world, perhaps too much like it, and Hawthorn and Child, who see the worst of it, make rather unnerving company.

[Source: Available at The Guardian - online; accessed 20.10.2012.]

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