October 21, 2010

Keith Ridgway: The Long Falling

Posted in Ridgway Keith at 8:00 am by John Self

When I rule the world, the list of authors everyone must read (yes, you’d better start taking notes) will include Keith Ridgway. I’ve read three of his five books; I am rationing them. But you don’t need to buy them from £0.01 on Amazon Marketplace to see how well he writes. His blog posts show it: try him on old Nazis, on honey cake, on rent boys and Metropole, on The Kindly Ones, on Alone in Berlin (covering the last much better than I did). Yet at the time of writing, all his books have Amazon sales ranks – that handily specious guide to success – pushing the one million mark. It’s a world gone wrong.

The Long Falling (1998) was Ridgway’s first novel – after the novella Horses – and won two literary prizes in France, which shows that they have better taste than we do. If Horses was John McGahern with – forgive me – attitude, then The Long Falling, with its depiction among other things of contemporary gay Ireland, must be Colm Tóibín: the Director’s Cut. In fact, the gay interest and the political currents are secondary to a strong portrayal of a woman in crisis, worthy of my old friend Brian Moore. (And that is the last time I will liken him to another writer; Ridgway is gifted enough to be a point of comparison himself.)

Grace Quinn has lost both her sons. Sean died as an infant when a moment’s inattention allowed him to crawl into a ditch and drown; her other son, Martin, left home in the Cavan town of Cootehill after telling his parents who he really is, and getting the expected response from his father (‘I mean that I’m gay.’ ‘Queer?’ ‘Gay.’ ‘There’s no such word. Not that way. It’s queer.’ Then: ‘Your mother killed the wrong fucking one, that’s for sure’). Martin goes to Dublin. Grace is left alone, with a violent husband (what is it about the Irish? Great writers and bastards for dads. Is there some link?) and little sympathy from the locals.

Everybody knew her husband, and everybody knew her. Neither of them was liked. She, initially, because she had come from England, he because of his manner. Now he was not liked because of what had happened, and she because she was his wife.

“What had happened” is that Grace’s husband knocked down a girl with his car and killed her. “Grace could not afford to fix the front of the car. She drove it as it was, reminding everybody. People did not like her for that.” Two deaths, one estrangement, domestic violence (“He would punch, and he would throw me. He could pick me up and throw me”): enough tragedy, right? Wrong: this is literary Ireland. Room for a little more. So Grace hits her crisis, runs into it with her eyes open, and moves to Dublin to stay with Martin.

Imagine falling from a great height. Without panic. Imagine taking in the view on the way down, as your body tumbles gently in the air, the only sound being the sound of your progress. Your progress. Imagine that it is progress to fall from a great height. A thing worth doing. Though it is not a thing for doing. You do nothing, you simply allow it to happen. Imagine relaxing into the sudden ground. Imagine the stop.

We don’t have to imagine it, as Ridgway has done that for us, and gives us Grace’s long falling, her time of “trying not to break open”, in perfect detail, told from different points of view. One reviewer calls it “the Irish Crime and Punishment.”

She is thrown into the life of the city, where the Celtic tiger (remember that?) is just beginning to drag 1990s Ireland into the modern world. Her son takes her to a gay bar (while he visits a bath house alone: “They were all ages, walking to and fro, naked but for their towels, some carrying keys, some cigarette boxes, all with the same look. Just eyes. They looked like men given some terrible task. They wanted it over with”). But Ireland has been backward too long to crawl forward without a fight. There are beggars and drunks all over the place. Everyone in Martin’s liberal, secular circle is getting agitated about the ‘X case’, where the Irish Attorney General obtained an injunction to stop a 14-year-old rape victim from travelling abroad to get an abortion. The case provides a political backdrop for modern Ireland’s birthing pains.

Meanwhile, Martin is fretting about his lover, Henry, and what he might be up to in Paris, even as he struggles to come to terms with his identity in a country still emerging from under the dead hand of religion. “The circumstances of his life had flowed from the way he wished to make love. From that clumsy declaration. I am what I want. I am this.”

The plot in The Long Falling slows down at times and takes tricky turns elsewhere, but by the end the feeling is of an inevitability playing out. It seems like a story you don’t so much read as watch. (Aptly enough, it’s being made into a film. Well: a French film.) The brilliant details and sharp dialogue don’t disguise the tragedy at the heart of the book. The past is not dead: it is not even past. We discover that Grace’s falling began long ago, when she met her future husband, and in the grand tradition ignored her parents’ advice (“Don’t go to Ireland. Do not go to Ireland”). Late in the book, Martin is interviewed by a policeman, who tells him, “You’re going to have to start from the beginning, Mr Quinn, if you don’t mind. I’m not sure I follow you.” “From where?” says Martin.

“The beginning.”

“Where’s that?”

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30 Comments »

  1. Sam Jordison said,

    He’s into emphatic two word sentences, isn’t he? Isn’t he? But you make this sound great. I liked his Alone In Berlin review too.

    Confession: Wonderful as he sounds, I’d never heard of Keith Ridgway before reading about him on the asylum. But I guess that proves your point…

  2. This is a really great article. Next time I’m in the library I’ll definitely be picking a copy up.

  3. John Self said,

    He’s into emphatic two word sentences, isn’t he? Isn’t he?

    Is he? You reckon? S’pose so.

    Sam, another reader of my blog emailed me to say that they had never heard of Ridgway either, and was too embarrassed to admit it in public. (Perhaps fearful of suffering the fate of David Lodge’s character playing ‘Humiliation’.) Their name will be withheld to spare blushes. But now that you’ve broken the duck, I trust others will come forward, Spartacus-like, admitting, “I’ve never heard of Keith Ridgway too!”

    Sam and book caterpillar, and anyone else, it’s worth noting that Ridgway’s stuff has evolved since the start of his writing career, and his most recently published novel Animals is a much knottier and more unusual prospect than The Long Falling or Horses. I wrote about Animals in the early days of this blog, here, and reviewed it in a rather tentative and bewildered manner. I think I’d be more confident in my praise of it now. So I am very interested to see What Keith Did Next.

  4. Never heard of him before today. Deeply ashamed. Two books are now on their way to my house…

  5. John Self said,

    May I ask which two, Charles? The two I haven’t read are the story collection Standard Time and his second novel The Parts. The latter is, I hope, one to save up and look forward to: “the sort of novel that will take the oxygen out of the air for readers of Eugenides, DeLillo, Hemon, Zadie Smith, and so many others.”

  6. I went for this one and Horses – I thought I’d start at the beginning and work up…

  7. John Self said,

    A reasonable policy, Charles. FYI, The Parts is, I believe, Ridgway’s ‘gayest’ book in terms of character headcount, y’know, just in case you’re interested in that sort of thing… (In his most recent published novel, Animals, the narrator has a partner, referred to as K, whose sex is undeclared. Like a reverse of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body.)

  8. There’s a Perec-like perversity about concealing the sex of a character, unless you constantly address him/her as ‘you’ – as, if my memory serves me, Winterson did. Or did she? It also, of course, creates massive problems for translation into gender-inflected languages…

  9. John Self said,

    Well with Winterson, it was the narrator who was of undeclared sex, so that problem was avoided. He/she (let’s face it, it was impossible to read that book without thinking of the narrator as a Winterson figure) had had boyfriends and girlfriends, so was bisexual either way. Either way.

    A good point about the languages. Ridgway has been translated into French among others, so I wonder what they did about that…

  10. seventydys said,

    Keith Ridgway is a superb writer who is definitely deserving of a wide readership. He has the rare skill of conveying an event, an object, a turn of mind, a memory into strong, memorable language. But there’s more than just craft with words to recommend him. He’s a real storyteller with a clear understanding of space and timing – he knows what to leave out, what to make present. There’s sadness and darkness, but also great warmth, compassion and comedy in his writing.

    The Parts is a particular favourite – a big, roiling novel, generous & strange, with characters more real than words have a right to make them. I particularly like the fact that he can ‘write women.’ (Although, of course, nobody congratulates women novelists for their ability to ‘write men’ something the best just…do.) You’re never far out of touch with the ordinary oddness of the world in Ridgway’s work but the outcome isn’t arch or quirky but true and often deeply moving.

  11. Lee Monks said,

    I’ve always thought that Ridgway has been criminally overlooked and worthy of accolades. Without naming names, there’s some dross that gets on the Booker list, whilst great writers like this…a familiar tale. Animals is completely brilliant.

  12. leroyhunter said,

    I’m only aware of him via your reviews John but the praise from all quarters is compelling. I followed your link to his piece on The Kindly Ones, which struck me as the best piece of criticism of that book I’ve read.

  13. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comments, leroyhunter, Lee and seventydys.

    I’ve also been banging the drum for Ridgway on the new Fiction Uncovered website, which aims to give wider exposure to deserving but underappreciated writers. A valuable initiative.

    • Lee Monks said,

      So can we push our own deserving writers on there, John? And when will the panel fashion their eight for the promotional, do you know?

      • John Self said,

        I don’t know, Lee. I suspect you can email them with your suggestions on the Contact tab.

        The list of eight books will be decided next year – click the 2011 tab on the site. It’s only open to books published between May 2010 and April 2011, and they have to be submitted by their publishers for consideration.

      • Lee Monks said,

        OK, cheers. I’ll keep an eye on it and think of who to suggest…it’s tricky. So many deserving, under-appreciated writers out there sucked into the margins. It’s a great initiative.

  14. Victoria said,

    Onto the wishlist it goes. Although I must admit the cover isn’t selling it to me; good job you did.

  15. John Self said,

    Yes the cover is poor, isn’t it Victoria? The snow just makes it look as though it hasn’t been printed properly (and the image above does fairly represent the actual cover which I have). There is an older paperback edition here which is a bit better, but not much.

  16. Draven Ames said,

    Dear John, (I always wanted to do that)

    Thank you for the nice review. The book sounds amazing. When you have finished the other two books, you have to write reviews for them. It is nice when I find books that I have never heard, by authors I have never seen. If nothing else, you have a future in PR. I came away wanting to know more about your writing as well.

    I love the name, by the way. Have a wonderful Friday,

    Draven Ames

  17. John Self said,

    If nothing else, you have a future in PR.

    If nothing else indeed! What I am trying to do some of the time on this blog is to pay attention to writers other than the ones the PR people email me about – but yes, why not, if I can’t beat them I’ll join them.

    Thanks for your comments Draven, and for visiting my blog, and I hope you try some Ridgway soon.

  18. Tx John for the intro to this wonderful writer. I’ve heard of HORSES below but haven’t gotten round to reading it, and while THE LONG FALLING doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, I read Keith’s blog and was extremely impressed by his compassionate, highly humane while ever so critical an analytical tone. Many tx again

  19. John Self said,

    Thanks Excerpt Reader, I’m glad you enjoyed his blog stuff. I think with Ridgway, his output is so varied that there really is something for everyone. Even when the subject matter is dark or knotty, the writing slips down very easily.

  20. Shelley said,

    “Trying not to break open” is sure on target.

  21. Extraordinary accolades on this one. I’d never heard of him (not sure why that should be shameful, I’m sure there’s a great many wonderful authors I’ve never heard of and far more I’ve never read, though I have read Hamlet) but as Leroy says the praise from all quarters is compelling.

    The cover is deeply uninspired.

    Would Horses be a good place to start? I’ll toddle off to read what you wrote on that now.

  22. [...] Keith Ridgway: The Long Falling A timely reminder of one of the most talented but least appreciated novelists now working in English, The Long Falling, Ridgway’s debut novel, is less ambitious than his later work, but just as fully achieved. It’s a straight story about a straight society struggling to accommodate challenges to its orthodoxy, and of one woman at a time of crisis. Also read his blog, where he writes about books like Alone in Berlin much better than I do. [...]

  23. Thanks for putting me on to this one, JS. I neglected to acknowledge you in my review but have corrected that in a comment. An excellent book, for all the reasons that you elaborate (and I do my best to expand upon).

  24. [...] in the acknowledgements. I presume (I don’t like to ask) that this is because of my previous championing of his work on this blog. I am therefore at risk of seeming either ungrateful for the nod [...]

  25. [...] and what did you make of it? For another, and I think much more eloquent review see John Self’s thoughts here. Have you read any of his other novels, like ‘Hawthorn and Child’, at [...]

  26. [...] and what did you make of it? For another, and I think much more eloquent review see John Self’s thoughts here. Have you read any of his other novels, like ‘Hawthorn and Child’, at [...]

  27. […] Keith Ridgway: The Long Falling A timely reminder of one of the most talented but least appreciated novelists now working in English, The Long Falling, Ridgway’s debut novel, is less ambitious than his later work, but just as fully achieved. It’s a straight story about a straight society struggling to accommodate challenges to its orthodoxy, and of one woman at a time of crisis. Also read his blog, where he writes about books like Alone in Berlin much better than I do. […]


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