Keith Ridgway’s Animals has stuck with me, in the three years since I read it, so firmly and so fondly that it’s a wonder I didn’t saddle it with the meaningless privilege of being one of my books of the year 2007. It’s a wonder too that it took me so long to revisit him, and that I did so only after finding a copy of his first book Horses in a secondhand shop while on holiday last summer.
I say ‘his first book’, which is both true and misleading. In fact Horses was published in 1997 as part of a Faber anthology of new authors (in their First Fiction: Introductions series). After Ridgway established a medium-sized name for himself with bigger, standalone works (two novels The Long Falling and The Parts, and a story collection Standard Time), Horses was reissued in a slim solo edition – 80 pages long – in 2003.
Animals was a more or less indescribable thing – perm three from unreliable narrator, psychological horror, Kafkaesque, black comedy, existential, absurdist – and having now read Ridgway’s earliest and latest published fiction, I can see just how far he’s come. But Horses remains a good book, and indeed with potentially wider appeal than Animals. It’s clearly the work of a young writer: how else to explain this perfectly polished, showpiece opening?
In the broad spaces of the streets near the square, Mathew stood and watched for the secrets which the rain reveals. In the air around the mountains he could see the clouds begin to form, to gather themselves like skirts held in, to muster and breathe deep and peer down the slopes to the place where people live, and plot a route. He saw them set off then with a tiny roll, and saw them pick up speed and press a silence out in front of them, and pick up speed again and canter quietly, billowing, and roll on into a gallop like a charge of black and ghostly horses, their hooves turning in the air, churning up a grey dust against the sun.
It’s prose with rhythm, timing, drive, perfect pitch and a few clever touches: the nod to the title, and the beginning of a subtle sleight of hand on the reader as to who, or what, Mathew is. As the first paragraph of a first publication, not half bad.
But it’s silly to damn such beauty as being indicative of immaturity: Ridgway can really write, that’s all. If struggling to find fault, one would do better to latch onto Julian Gough’s criticism of his Irish contemporaries, for “copying the very great John McGahern, in the 21st century.” Sure enough, Horses has McGahern qualities: the rural setting, the close-knit community, the febrile relationships, the broodings – resentment, regret, revenge – at the heart of many motivations.
Even then, Horses stands on its own four feet, not least because the violence and bloodletting which seeps through it would never have suited McGahern’s low-key style, or at least would not be put on the page so splashily. Here, things happen not only in the past but in the present too. Mathew Doyle (“unsuited for the world”) is believed to be responsible for a series of arson attacks on local buildings, including one which killed the horses so beloved of Dr Brooks’ daughter Helen:
Her hair fell over her eyes in wet ropes and she felt a pain in her heart, or where she thought her heart might be, or where it had been, for it was gone now, dead, smoke against the sky, with Poppy and Gepetto and Mountain Star.
As well as Mathew and Helen and her father, the remaining cast does not extend much beyond Garda Sweeney and Father Devoy (yes, yes, I told you), and the short, explosive nature of the story, with a lot of conversation and a little action too, makes it read at times like a play on the page. Alongside the reasoning adult minds of the doctor, the priest and the policeman, the heart of the story pits two unworldly souls against one another: Helen, who is distracted with grief (“[she] wondered whether you could be struck by lightning and swallow the power that had hit you and make it yours, so that your life would be electric bright and burning to the touch”), and Mathew, an innocent (“Terror sorry for the horses. Terror sorry”).
The tight, claustrophobic drama of Horses portends terrible things to come before its end – and great things to come from its author after that.