Hawthorn and Child is a difficult book to review. Opinion seems to be divided between those who think it represents the pinnacle of contemporary literature, and those who think it’s pretentious toss, claiming that anybody who says otherwise is equally up themselves. Being ever-mild and reasonable I can see both points of view.
Anybody coming in hoping for a literary whodunnit, are certainly going to be disappointed. The book is like a mosaic of the Rothko paintings mentioned in the chapter ‘Rothko Eggs’. Each chapter is a short story; a tessera that when combined with the others forms a big fuzzy canvas. Whether that canvas bares repeated stares or is to be greeted with a derision, very much depends on the reader.
There are elements of wonder in the book. Tantalising hints of plot and back story abound, but just when the threads are about to coalesce into something meaningful, they drop away to once again become random bits of string. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It may well be the closest depiction of real life I’ve read in fiction. Stories, inevitably, don’t depict real life, even when they are about real life. Usually in a novel, only the stuff important for narrative is left in. Even if life’s minutiae are described, it’s to show the reader something; they fit in with the overall story the writer is trying to convey.
That’s not to say the details Ridgeway has decided to portray are mundane. This is not a mere catalogue of a guy who slices fruit and takes the kids to school (things I do every day). The events portrayed are interesting, that just don’t tend to go anywhere. My own travails, as chairman of a cash-strapped pre-school, or fights with my parents over how best to live their twilight years aren’t tedious. They could certainly be described in a thoroughly entertaining manner, but what they wouldn’t do is fit into a wider narrative. I haven’t killed anybody (yet), I’m not having an affair. I don’t know the location of hidden pirate treasure. My life intersects with any number of stories, but I am not driven by a coherent narrative, and so it is with Hawthorn and Child.
The book came to my attention through Twitter, where I follow all sorts of (mostly young) literary types. They raved about this book. So much so, it made want to read it. After all, if so many people I admire and enjoy the writing of, love the book, surely it must be good? This leads to expectations, and a desire, a need even, to ‘get’ it. Failure to understand what the author set out to do, might trigger feelings of inadequacy.
It’s tempting to dash off a ‘this book is great’ review. I liked some passages, I could rave about those, throw in some words like ‘stylised’ and meta-fiction (maybe) and hopefully sound convincing enough to keep my literary credentials (if I have any) in tact. It’s route one to becoming a ‘pretentious critic’. But I don’t feel this book is great. Or perhaps it is, and I’m just not up to the task. Perhaps I’m too bound to the conventions of novels, like plot, and narrative direction. Perhaps that’s why writers like it so much. They spend their whole time thinking about plot and resolution, so ‘Hawthorn and Child’ is like a breath of fresh air. I met a pilot once, on his holiday. We were on the trans-siberian express. He loved it.
One word I avoided mentioning in the last paragraph is character. The characterisation and dialogue in the stories are exemplary. Hawthorn and Child, may only be shadowy figures in some of the stories but we come to understand them. Even in the chapters in which they feature heavily, there is little exposition. We learn about them through their speech, their habits and their actions. The finest thing about the book is the way Ridgway used my own preconceptions, (prejudices?) against me. He drip feeds information about his two detectives, each time forcing me to rearrange my mental picture. Each time, to my dismay, I discovered that the picture created, was as a direct result of being a middle-aged, middle-class, white male. I like to think I am unfettered by my background, that I don’t have many preconceptions, but this book made me realise that it can be hard to escape the way we are raised. This revelation and insistence that I think harder about how I see the world is worth cover price alone.
So this isn’t really a review. You won’t know whether you like Hawthorn and Child until you’ve read it. You shouldn’t take anybody else’s word on it. It’s unusual, frustrating and haphazard, but it’s also funny, thoughtful and contains some beautiful language.
Many thanks to my wife for buying me a copy of this book for my birthday.