Keith Ridgway: Hawthorn & Child

Before I begin writing about this book, I have an interest to declare. I have been thanked by the author 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 (I’m not), or as though I have a vested interest in the book’s success. I don’t. Well, I do: I think it’s the best new book I’ve read this year, and so I want it to do well in order that Ridgway has the means and time to write another.

He dreamed he was sleeping, and Child was driving.

Hawthorn & Child was originally subtitled, on its publisher’s website, ‘A Set of Misunderstandings’. The misunderstandings might begin in trying to define it. It’s a series of stories which is really a novel, about two London police detectives and the people they encounter.  It begins with an unsolvable mystery, when a young man is shot from a passing car on a quiet north London street. The brief information provided by the victim as he lies on the hospital table (“They poked and peered at the body. They tubed the body and they hooked it up. They shifted and bound the body”) becomes the bedrock of a police investigation, a grand structure spun around no more than air. This is a book which is all about the details: the ones we don’t know, the ones we invent to replace them, and the exquisite ones Ridgway provides us with along the way. Details, like this brief phone exchange between Hawthorn and his brother, which speaks of years in a couple of lines:

—How’s the thing?

—What thing?

—The crying.

Hawthorn made a face and looked out of the window.

—It’s fine.

The imprecision of language is everywhere. Here, Hawthorn’s brother wants to ask but can’t bring himself to be specific. Elsewhere, when investigating the shooting, Hawthorn and Child take a witness’s response to a question (“Not really”) as an opening, when really it’s just a loose end. They are desperate to make things fit. “We usually don’t decide anything about things that don’t fit. They just don’t fit. So we leave them out.” In this, they are like all of us, even when we are reading this book and trying to join together the pieces of the narrative. (Ridgway: “We want to tell ourselves and our days and our lives as stories, and these things are not stories.”)

In some of the sections, the title characters are central. Child finds himself in a hostage negotiation with a young man who seems to be in a religious cult of one, and whose sense of identity is mangled. Hawthorn, straining for human contact, finds it – sort of – in a clever sequence which cuts between a riot and an orgy, and where it’s not always possible to see which is which.

There are certain things Hawthorn wants to do. There are things he doesn’t want to do. The line between these things tickles him, like a bead of sweat down his back.

In other places, Hawthorn and Child are merely in the background, seen at a distance, or referred to. Ridgway gets around having to clunkingly name them by giving Hawthorn distinctive features that can be described by others: he cries a lot (“How’s the thing?”) and there’s something, perhaps related, wrong with his face. “His face was crooked.” “Like he was peeking through a keyhole.” “He looks somehow off kilter.” The risk here is that you get something like David Mitchell’s scar identifier that joined the characters in Cloud Atlas, which looked tricksy and needless. Cloud Atlas, in fact, is not a bad starting point for comparison with Hawthorn & Child. With his book, Mitchell wanted to go further than Calvino had in If on a winter’s night a traveller, by finishing all the stories he began. He did it, and the cumulative nimbleness was impressive; but I felt there was something missing in the heart region, and I wonder now whether the resolution of the stories contributed to it. Resolving a story can involve the author in so much contortion and knot-tying that the ugliness of the ending spoils the beauty that went before. Ridgway has been, I think, braver than Mitchell. The stories here are unresolved — “holding the reader down and anti-climaxing all over their face,” I heard it put — but they are not incomplete. There is nothing missing, no sense that the stories peter out. The narrative pull within each one is strong, and they all leave you wanting more. What more could we ask for?

He’s completely sane. Except for this thing. It’s like all his weirdness is contained in this. In you or me weirdness is spread out over everything. Half an inch of weirdness. Over everything. With him, it’s just this one thing that’s weird. Two foot deep.

Underlying all this, or stretching over it, is the story of Hawthorn and Child themselves. This is not a buddy cop story. They are on the trail of a gangster, Mishazzo. They work together, with contrasting approaches. Hawthorn is unsubtle, Child more solicitous: he gets on with people more easily; is happier, too. In their work, Child works things out, separates the possible from the fanciful. Hawthorn doesn’t want to exclude the fanciful. He is searching for meaning, for something to put in the gaps. He thinks about things and people that might explain other things and other people to him. He “thought about men, various men, whom he moved about his mind experimentally like furniture.” These enquiries are futile, though that is their purpose. A narrator of one of the stories says, “Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided and over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.” That narrator, from the story ‘How We Ran the Night’, is thoroughly unpleasant, and somehow frightening. (“I think of Trainer hanging in his attic. It must be worth knowing, what makes a man do that.”) There is a fair amount of shiver-inducing nastiness in Hawthorn & Child, including as many ugly deaths as you might expect in a book about policemen. Yet there is tenderness all the way through, not least in the grudging pity I felt for Hawthorn. His tragedy in a minor key makes him one of the strongest fictional creations I’ve encountered in some time.

He dreamed that he slept in a house that moved, and that was not his, and that was not now.

Hawthorn & Child exhaustively answers the question: What do you want from a book? There are likeable characters too: in ‘Goo Book’, a story of the thoughts that lie too deep to say in Mishazzo’s driver’s love affair (first published in The New Yorker); and in ‘Rothko Eggs’ (first published in Zoetrope All-Story). There are plots and stories, page-turning and teasing. There is innovation — it is structurally bold, and eye-opening in subject matter (a premiership referee who sees ghosts would fit that bill). It kicks the reader out of their comfort zone. It has lines that zing and lines that hum, as in the voice-driven ‘Marching Songs’, which as a sustained piece of fictional prose, could hardly be bettered. (Could it? Read it yourself.)

I believe, though I cannot prove, that my illness is due directly to the perverted Catholicism and megalomania of Mr Tony Blair, former Prime Minister, whom I met once, whose hand I physically shook (at which point he assaulted me), and who, if you should mention my name to him, will tell you that he met me, or that he did not meet me, or that he cannot recall. Because he has all the answers.

This is a book which I read twice before reviewing it, to unpick the connections but also because I selfishly wanted the pleasure again. And now as I thumb the pages to write this, and get nervous with excitement at seeing the best bits again, this time both fresh and familiar, I wonder if I can resist a third go. Perhaps I am mad. Perhaps, as Martin Amis described himself in relation to Bellow, I am Keith Ridgway’s perfect reader and nobody else will get the same thrill I have from this book. But let me tell you something.

I know that something has gone wrong. I know that the fault is visible. You can discern it in everything I say to you. In most of what I say to you. In how I say it. I know this. I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.


  1. Thanks John, I’m sold (in fact I had to give up reading your review half-way through in order to leave more of the book undetermined when I come to read it – although I did get as far as the Cloud Atlas comparison, which might have put me off, since I can’t stand the thoroughgoing blandness of David Mitchell’s writing. Ridgway seems far more challenging, in the best possible sense of the word).

  2. Yes, yes, yes! I am as you know enjoying my second read of this and finding so much to enjoy, especially without the first read confusion of it all being new. Quirky in all the right ways, fabulous characters, enigmatic, wonderfully written; a true treat of a novel that deserves as many readers as we can encourage. Just buy it, people.

  3. Interesting comparison with Cloud Atlas, John, which I hadn’t considered as I read Hawthorn & Child, but now seems quite appropriate. I guess both share a concern with how we try to use stories to shape our lives; though Mitchell’s book is about repeating patterns, and Ridgway’s about how lives can’t really be shaped into stories (hence it’s truer).

    Hawthorn & Child was the first Ridgway I’d read; do you think it’s a good guide to what the rest of his work is like?

  4. Tom, I hope you like it, and worry not – there are no spoilers in my review!

    Will, no doubt you will be reviewing it yourself, right? Your new-found Twitter followers need to know about this book!

    David, I enjoyed your review too. I think Hawthorn & Child is a good indication of Ridgway’s work in qualitative terms – it’s all really good – but not otherwise. His first two books, Horses and The Long Falling, are quite traditional in structure and form. His third novel, The Parts, I haven’t read (it’s a biggie and I’ve been saving it). His last, Animals, is very interesting and shows him stretching out to stranger territory – which he continues in H&C. There’s also a story collection, Standard Time, which again I haven’t read. There are reviews of all the books I have read on this blog.

  5. I read both Cloud Atlas (loved) and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (messed with my brain) so am more than a little curious about this one. Will just have to read it, right?

  6. I’ve ordered it, as you’ve ordered me to, Mr Self. This thing about stories: I’m happening to be rereading a story collection in which each of the many pieces begins wholly conventionally as a story (“I am going to tell you the story of a Japanese girl I met in Los Angeles …”, “There was a barber who had come to Piacenza …”) and gradually lose their storyness – so that things just happen, in no cause-and-effect way – and am loving it.

  7. Celati is my favourite Italian author by a long chalk, and that’s a particularly fine collection, Charles.

    And Ridgway’s one of my favourite English-language authors, thanks to you, John, without whom I might never have discovered him. I’ll be reading this very soon indeed.

  8. Thanks Charleses. I’ve ordered a copy of Voices from the Plains. (I almost typed Voices from the Palins then. What a different prospect that would be.) Expect a review here in around 2023.

  9. Before I read your review and read only the snippet you tweeted, I misunderstood the title and assumed it was an adult (of dubious mental disposition) talking to his child, and therefore it reminded me of Zen.
    I am intrigued tho. I haven’t read Cloud Atlas but loved Ghostwritten, but some friends recently described Cloud Atlas in much the same way as you did. I’m attempting Thousand Autumns at the moment.
    Anyway, this does sound intriguing and different and I like different so I will add it to my list.

  10. I’m only 50 pages into it, but hoping the “I don’t think that’s the right word” theme continues. Delightful.

  11. I’m struggling to recall what you mean by that, Colette…

    Siobh, there are no children in the book – no, in fact, there’s a baby in ‘The Association of Christ Sejunct’, who has a central role. Better not say more.

  12. There must have been a glitch in the Matrix: here I am again, impressed with the praise for a Ridgway book, and writing about how impressed I am. Really like the sound of this one: and unlike last time, I’ve acted on your recommendation John. It’s ordered.

  13. I read this based on John’s review, and it really is marvellous. And though “This is not a buddy cop story”, I could happily read 500 pages of conversations between Hawthorn on Child, driving around London.

  14. I agree, JRSM – and the first and last parts of the book tie the whole thing together very well in that sense.

    Leroyhunter, I hope you like it! Do report back.

  15. Finished now, loved it. What I mentioned above, about “I don’t think that’s the right word” was noticed on page 47,

    — Explicate?
    — I don’t think that’s the right word, Hawthorn.

    and I thought it might be a theme of their conversations because of the grinning at each other over the colours mentioned from pages 18 to 23.

    It appears again near the end, page 268

    — It rankles?
    — Yeah. Rankles. What’s wrong with you?
    — I don’t think rankles is the word you’re looking for.

  16. I am away on holiday and read your review and bought it straight away for my kindle:-) Halfway through and are loving the all the brilliant unfinished ends, very much like Roberto Bolano’s 2666. If you haven read that yet I cannot not recommend it highly enough.
    Thank you for a wonderful review…it worked for me:-)

  17. Thanks Teddy. Oddly, just last week I was discussing Bolaño with a few people. I’ve never really been able to get on with him (though have only tried a few of his short works, Amulet and By Night in Chile), and someone said I need to read 2666. More oddly yet, I am sure that Keith Ridgway wrote a long piece on 2666 on his website, but I can’t find it now.

    So thanks for the recommendation, which I will follow up – eventually!

    Colette, I’m delighted you liked it too. So far I have had only positive responses on Twitter from those who read it on my recommendation – the backlash must surely come…

    1. Enjoyed the so much that after buying a copy and reading it on my Kindle, I went out and bought an analog, physical copy, and 2 of his earlier books:-)

  18. Thanks to your recommendation (I’d read it here first, and then was reminded of it in the recent Guardian article about your promotion of Ridgway) I ordered the book then read it in a single sitting last night. This is not how I usually read books, but I couldn’t put it down.I heard Toni Morrison speak once and she talked about leaving holes in the narrative for the reader to work to fill in; Hawthorn and Child seems a fairly extreme and expert example of this. Some of the “nastiness” to which you refer is really quite sickening, but not unlike what I found in police files I once had to review as part of a former job (I’m guessing Ridgway had access to similar sources). Anyway, thanks again for the tip – it’s been awhile since I couldn’t help reading a book in one big gulp.

  19. Wonderful book John, you are to be applauded for championing it so vigorously. Re-reading your review makes me want to start a re-read of the novel, which I will do at some stage, no doubt about that.

    The whole book has that you-notice-but-can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on quality, just like the descriptions of Hawthorn’s face. It keeps you enthralled, slightly off balance .I can’t imagine a more satisfying conclusion then the ambiguous scene Ridgway signs off with. And delicious writing all the way through, at a level maintained regardless of changes of narrator, gender, age etc.

    With this, Today and Lazarus is Dead you’re a stonking 3-for-3 so far this year.

  20. I’ve read and have liked, very much, if perhaps not quite as much as you, John. The genre of police procedural has long been ripe for the taking. (Why, in the films too, do they never need to pee? Do the normal stuff. Get hungry, having missed their lunchtime canteen. I’ve long wanted to write a story in which the investigating officer, let’s call him/her, is suffering from diarrhoea and during a crucial house interview has to keep asking to use the loo.) I didn’t entirely warm to the writing, at times clipped to the point I felt sprayed by an airgun. ‘They took her down. The coroner’s people.’ ‘He shrugged. Sipped his beer.’ He does this very well, but I felt it became a mannerism, a default mode, and without more variation – sentences are infinitely variable things – the clippedness lost its impact. The other thing, petty I know but somehow I feel strongly, a design thing: the running heads, on the versos Keith Ridgway, on the rectos Hawthorn & Child. If they’re stable throughout the whole book, they’re not needed at all. Here, precisely because of the structure of the book, it would have been more reader-friendly, more useful, to have had Hawthorn & Child continuously on the versos and the story/section titles on the rectos.

  21. I once had to manage a quite important meeting while suffering from diarrhoea. Every 20 minutes I had to interrupt the meeting while I went to the loo. There was no hiding what was going on. Everyone just had to accept a staccato meeting – unfortunately it couldn’t continue without me so the meeting just stopped each time I left the room.

    The trouble with that though, like much real life, is if you put it in a narrative it’s hard to avoid it becoming farce. Probably because it was quite farcical.

    It’s my fundamental problem with realism/naturalism. There’s a pretence that it is somehow true to the world, but it isn’t. The world is full of the absurd, the out of genre. An important meeting shouldn’t be interrupted by regular and frequent loo breaks, but reality of course isn’t bound by the rules of literary expectation.

  22. Hi John. It was with some trepidation that I bought this after the disaster that was A Summer of Drowning – I think I finally gave that up about 10 pages from the end when I finally recognised that nothing of any interest was going to happen. However I found H and C fascinating and hugely enjoyable. The structure takes a little getting used to and I was left feeling that I missed out on quite a bit in my misguided efforts to create something linear out of it in my own mind so have started on my second reading.

    Liked his recent piece in the New Yorker where he admits that he never does any research.

  23. Hi jim, good to hear from you. I’ll ignore your gross libel on A Summer of Drowning and instead simply cheer your appreciation for Hawthorn & Child. I do think a second reading is not only helpful but really worthwhile: I got a lot more out of it (pleasure included) second time around.

    What’s interesting is that a book which has been described in some quarters as challenging or otherwise ‘difficult’ seems to have almost universal approval when people do actually read it. I think that despite the obviously unusual structure, within each story there is a good deal of narrative drive and simply great writing, which helps explain the favourable reception. (Out of scores of people on Twitter who have talked about it, I’ve only seen two who didn’t think it was terrific.)

  24. I came to this review via The Guardian (I think) and bought the book purely on the strength of your recommendation. This is less a comment and more of a thank you. It’s absolutely fantastic.

    I found myself on a badly delayed Virgin train with a drink, a bag of popcorn and the book. I was probably the only passenger who wanted the journey to last. I was alternating between smiling, thinking ah! and just wondering at how very good that last sentence was.

    Now I have to go and read everything else he’s ever written.

  25. A satisfyingly unreliable narrative, peopled by persuasively unreliable and uncertain characters. There were some very startling moments that made me physically take a deep breath.

    The ends weren’t as much loose as fully detached from gravity. I’m already curious to know if foreknowledge will help me see patterns and connections when I reread it some time. I hope not. I like the interesting lack of resolution just as it is.

    The dialogue is true and well-written. Lots of realistic ‘what?’ moments, as there are in real conversations when people are thinking in various directions as they talk.

    The dialogue was so good that I was reminded to ask myself: ‘Why don’t I read more plays?’. Plays, and good novel dialogue, make for very pure reading. Must take proper talent to write them – they’re constructed out of bare bones and visible sinews, with no pudgy adjectives and obese passages of explanatory description to hide behind.

    Is this a novel? That was my assumption. As I read, though, it seemed to be a series of loosely connected stories with some overlap. So when I read this fine review afterwards, I was interested to read that two of the stories were first published as stand-alone stories elsewhere. Not that it matters which label is slapped on it (unless for literary prize purposes?) – as a reader, it only matters that it’s good.

  26. Thank you for your review and championing of this book, John. I’m not sure it is something I would have ever come across otherwise, and it has already sent me scurrying down a number of new paths – Gombrowicz among them.

    A point you make in your review and I think worth emphasising to those who may be unsure about trying this, is the “page-turning” nature of the writing. People who have read about its fragmented structure, its interest in the imprecision of language, and its struggle against narrative might think this sounds like a writerly exercise – something to be admired (maybe even endured) rather than enjoyed. But it is full of the kind of language, of dialogue, of description, of events, of characters that you gulp down. I’ve been greedy in my reading and will be interested in how much stays with me – but in its moment this is a terrific book that has really excited me about new writing again.

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