Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway

November 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve been meaning to post for a very long time indeed about Hawthorn & Child, which I bought in the UK edition a year ago. Now that the North American publishing date has been and gone it seems only appropriate to jot down some random thoughts and send them belatedly out to the internet with no timely hook whatsoever.


One of the first things I liked about this book was the cover, which reminded me of one of my favourite albums (Earth Vs The Wildhearts). Possibly this resemblance, which, upon actually looking at the two images next to one another, turned out to be not as strong as I might have hoped, was heightened for me because until recently I thought that the large brown insect was in fact a sausage and therefore much more closely related to the fruit on the Ridgway cover. What can I say; I bought this album on cassette tape: the picture was tiny. In addition, my love of sausages is all-conquering.

Hawthorn and Child are a pair of detectives living and working in London. When the book opens with a possible drive-by shooting, it seems fairly certain that we’re on reliable detective fiction ground. The victim claims to have been shot from a vintage car, despite the fact that no nearby witnesses saw any vehicle matching this description. When Hawthorn starts to obsess over this, it feels like the first clue, or the first clue-hunt. But soon this story is dropped, just as we’re keen to find out what really happened, and we’re shunted over to other voices, other close-up third-person perspectives. It’s a bit like reality TV—highly edited, highly crafted fragmented narratives that purport to be fly-on-the-wall. And yet if this truly was reality TV there’d be a much stronger sense of narrative as boss, of the need for conflict and obstacles, conclusion and resolution and final answers.

Hawthorn and Child, it turns out, are much more human than other police detectives, in the sense that they seem about as acclimatised to the job—its boredoms and its horrors—as any random person off the street, which is to say, not very. Not for them the strict separation of work and life. Child is just about done with the job; Hawthorn should perhaps never have started in the first place. There’s very little of the hardboiled about either of them, which could have made them farcical but doesn’t.

I’ve seen suggestions that this book, described by the publishers (Granta in the UK, New Directions in the US) as a novel, is really a collection of short stories. I partially sympathise with this position, but to describe Hawthorn and Child as short stories fundamentally alters the way you read it and think about it, and a considerable part of the pleasure of this book comes from the subconscious’s attempts to sort things into patterns, make the numbers add up, and solve the mystery.  This is, however, really not the point of Hawthorn & Child. Mysteries are not solved so much as set aside to join the random pile of questions floating around in the ether and sometimes overlapping with all the unanswered questions filling—and yet ignored by—our own individual brains. Those black and white images that could be vases and could be human faces, depending on the precise location our eyes rest on as well as on the information our brains so desperately want to fill in, might be a good way of thinking about Hawthorn & Child.

Reading it is as much as experiment on one’s own mind about how we read, and about the yearning for structure and closure that sends our minds zipping off into frenzies of connection-making. It reminds me of the experience of reading The Unfortunates, BS Johnson’s 1969 book in a box. There, the fact that the story is in randomly ordered bound sections is supposed to derail the linear narrative, but behind the scenes my (clearly very conventional) brain was keen to solve the puzzle—if not going as far as to demand a precise order, at least assigning each new section to a vague period of time. Apart from this, The Unfortunates is a fairly conventional novel, but both it and Hawthorn & Child create, in their respective ways, a reading experience that is much closer to our lived experience of reality. People don’t tell you their life history in neat chronological order, they dole out random episodes at irregular intervals. As you go about your business, the business of the rest of the world comes in and out of focus, raising questions which are rarely resolved.

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

As I was writing about Hawthorn & Child, I thought of another great book that might also fit into some vague category of subversive detective fiction. John Goldbach’s The Devil and the Detective, set in Montreal, is an intriguing tale about a private detective hired to investigate the death of a beautiful woman’s husband. Bob James, the incompetent, or perhaps altogether too competent and this aware of his limitations, detective assigned to investigate a man’s murder starts off on the wrong foot by having sex with the not-particularly-grieving widow within hours of his death.


It’s all completely improbable buffoonery and great fun, written in what might best be described as a second-guessing, double-bluffing stream-of-consciousness style. The extended ruminations and the endless self- and universe-questioning reminded me of Simon Okotie’s fascinating Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? Both of these books and Hawthorn & Child do something well that Alex Estes, in his detailed and extensive review of Hawthorn & Child in Quarterly Conversation, describes thus:

Books are published all the time that rely on the classic novelistic tropes that guarantee a satisfying emotional experience. Alternatively, plenty of books rely on the “non-traditional” tropes of experimental literature that guarantee a satisfying intellectual experience. Somehow, Ridgway has written a book that accomplishes both.

Some readers insist that this is always an either/or scenario, in which formal experiment obliviously celebrates its Pyrrhic victory over content. But like Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (another BS Johnson novel),  both Hawthorn & Child and The Devil and the Detective tell you real things about people via the medium of a novel that forces the realistic and the non-realistic into a head-on collision without producing writing that is difficult or inaccessible. The results are most pleasurable.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.


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