Wednesday 7 December 2016

Predictable debut from a talented writer gets stuck in second gear

Fiction: Inch Levels, Neil Hegarty, Head of Zeus, hdbk, 330 pages, €19.50

Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30

Neil Hegarty: Flashes of talent, but Inch Levels can be a bit of a trudge
Neil Hegarty: Flashes of talent, but Inch Levels can be a bit of a trudge
Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty

As a published novelist myself (don't worry, you've never heard of any of my work), I fully appreciate just what an achievement it is to get a book out there, in the real world.

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Even to write a novel - 70, 80, 90 thousand words - is a mammoth task, so daunting that the thought of it is nearly enough to put you off starting. The amount of work involved, the sheer slog: initial idea/s, first draft, second draft, edits, rewrites, third draft, let it simmer for a while before another draft.

Then you have to successfully sell to a publisher (and maybe an agent), which in itself is almost a full-time job… at which point the real rewriting begins. Plus, add months of liaising on cover designs, discussing marketing ideas, copy-editing and tweaking, and then, at last, proof-reading the final, final, final typescript. By the time it's finally released, you might feel heartily sick of it, so much labour has gone into this (I know I certainly did at least once). Any book which gets published has had to jump through so many hoops, you can assume it's of reasonable quality. The very fact that someone has committed to publishing the work means it's probably better than virtually every other book that's been written.

All of which is a preamble to this: I didn't really like Inch Levels, the debut novel by Neil Hegarty. But I can appreciate the work that obviously went into it, and I can - like his publishers - recognise that the Derry man has talent. (Don't take my word for it: Hegarty has previously published several short stories and non-fiction books, including a biography of David Frost and an exploration of Dublin's music culture.) In fact, I'll go further: if you like, say, Donal Ryan's novels - which I don't, I'm afraid - you will almost certainly like this. It seems to me to occupy the same general thematic and tonal space.

But Inch Levels wasn't to my liking at all; I found it a bit of a trudge to get through. The narrative itself felt second-hand, or predictable. There was nothing here that really surprised me - none of those unexpected, thrilling literary gear-shifts which, as Anthony Burgess said, make for truly great art.

We open on a prologue: September 1983, and a small girl goes missing in Donegal, later found drowned at the titular Inch Levels on Lough Swilly. A month later, her mother kills herself by walking into the sea. The main plot is set in 1986, as thirty-something teacher Patrick lies dying in a Derry hospital. Though he initially seems to be the main character, Patrick is but one of a cast: his sister Margaret and her husband Robert, the siblings' mother Sarah, her husband and father, a Canadian airman and Sarah's long-time maid/friend Cassie. Through flashbacks and modern-day (as in the mid-eighties) revelations, many secrets are disclosed and dark deeds revisited.

Margaret and, especially, Sarah were very interesting characters. The opening mystery is satisfactorily resolved near the end. I liked how Bloody Sunday and the British abandonment of their Lough Swilly defences in 1938 were worked into the story.

But all the touchstones of a certain type of Irish fiction are present and correct: the past, memory, loss, family, abuse, violence, shame, guilt, secrets and lies. (Also, given that this is set in the North, the Troubles pop up here and there.) We've come across this kind of thing way too many times before. Like I say, no surprises.

John Banville praises Inch Levels as a novel where "old secrets never die, and what's past is never past". Personally, I'd consider that a warning not to read; you, like Banville, may feel differently.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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