By Keith Ridgway
In the Irish writer Keith Ridgway’s audaciously offbeat novel “Hawthorn & Child,” two detectives pinball around northeast London trying to impose order on chance and coincidence. In many ways, it’s a quintessential London novel, populated by an eclectic cast of characters whose lives intersect and overlap. But in Hawthorn and Child’s ultimately futile search for a plot — their inability to find the story that unites their investigation’s various threads — Ridgway pulls the rug out from under the reader.
Now, traveling south of the Thames, to the streets of Elephant and Castle, Camberwell and Peckham, Ridgway’s new novel, “A Shock,” is an even more ingeniously slippery book. From a widow who’s stalked by “the feeling of loneliness, worthlessness,” to a woman living a “misdirected” life, to another who tries to hide the emptiness of her existence behind elaborate lies, to men indulging in casual, drug-fueled hookups behind closed doors, Ridgway writes about people living on various margins, their lives interlocking in the craftiest of ways. What initially looks like a collection of loosely linked short stories reveals itself to be an expertly constructed house of mirrors.
Certain characters and places — the local pub, the Arms, or a house party that’s described, in two separate chapters, from divergent points of view — act as common points of reference, but many of the stories reappear as different, slightly skewed versions of themselves, almost as if they’ve been relayed through a game of Telephone. In one chapter, pub regulars regale one another with local urban legends. There was a writer, someone says, who moved into a Chelsea apartment once home to the Maynards, “the couple from the newspapers” who famously disappeared one day: “Vanished. Not a trace.” Or what about “the wretched woman” who got herself stuck inside the cavity space in the wall of her flat? “This actually happened near here,” the raconteur confirms. Trapped until her husband came home from work and heard her screaming for help.
Something about these tales sounds familiar. In the novel’s opening chapter, an elderly woman hollows out a crawl space in her crumbling kitchen wall — though she lives in a house, not an apartment, and her partner is dead. Later in the novel, a young man named David moves into a new flat and discovers that the previous occupants — a gay couple, not a husband and wife — went missing. There wasn’t much mystery about it though, the landlady explains. They were behind in their rent.
Reading “A Shock” feels a little like being a regular at the Arms, your attention momentarily grabbed by a snippet of someone else’s conversation as a voice drifts across the bar, a name or a turn of phrase tugging at something half-remembered, so that you strain to tune in to hear the rest. It’s the kind of novel that rewards multiple readings, new echoes and connections revealing themselves each time. And, in the same way that one character describes the unsettling, near-hallucinatory side effects of doing certain drugs — “it’s just peripheral, corner of the eye stuff, movements” — you get the sense of myriad other lives unfolding around those described here, all tantalizingly out of sight. “So many people doing things on the quiet, taking what they thought were chances,” one character thinks, “but they were only chances because they thought they were.”
After he published “Hawthorn & Child,” Ridgway professed to have given up writing fiction. Thank goodness he changed his mind.