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Review: Fiction: Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway

It's amazing how relatively unknown Keith Ridgway remains in Ireland. Not that he's a complete unknown, but a writer of his quality and with this CV should probably be a bigger name.

The Dubliner published his first fiction 15 years ago, in a Faber anthology. A collection of short stories, Standard Time, won the prestigious Rooney Prize in 2000.

He's also published novels The Long Falling, The Parts and Animals, to rapturous applause; been featured in The New Yorker; and had his work translated into several languages.

But never mind the bald facts, check out the critical praise. Jamie O'Neill, himself award-winning, described Ridgway as "genius". Colum McCann said his work was "Funny . . . gorgeous . . .beautifully written."

He's been compared to heavyweights like Eugenides, Kunzru and Murakami, and selected as a Book of the Year in the New York Times.

So how is this man still something of an unknown in his homeland, forgotten in the rush to heap adoration on Sebastian Barry, Colm Tóibín et al?

Possibly it's the fact that, until recently, Ridgway lived abroad for a long time. But more likely is the fact that what he's doing isn't as easily processed, as slick and palatable, to a wide audience as other Irish writers.

Ridgway's new book, Hawthorn & Child, is strange, unsettling, fragmented, confusing, at times dreamlike (these are all good things, by the way). You won't find sentimental stories of Irish emigrants here, nor self-flagellating clichés about dysfunctional families.

The prose style is unusual, too, coming from an Irish novelist. Whereas his compatriots often craft self-consciously "literary" sentences -- the sort of thing that gets award nominations but can feel somehow inauthentic -- Ridgway is more stripped down, though still elegant and (for want of a better word) literary.

His seems to have a more modernist style, cool and brisk and oblique, pulsing with intrinsic energy, feeling fresh and vital, the genuine expression of an individual's thoughts and talents, instead of the machine-tooled regurgitation of what the audience expects. And really, what more can you ask of a novel?

The story, or rather stories, concern two London policemen, the titular detectives Hawthorn and Child. It opens with them being called to a shooting, but this is just the beginning for a series of incidents both violent and tender, strange occurrences, stranger characters, shifts in time, shifts in perspective, shifts in tone and tempo.

The different threads are connected, but tenuously so, though of course this is deliberately done: it's not as if Ridgway has lost control of his own stories.

The book makes the reader work hard, much like its two heroes: sifting through the facts, piecing together clues, trying to shape a cohesive narrative out of seemingly random bits of information. And it's all the more satisfying for that.

Will Hawthorn & Child find a massive audience? Probably not, sadly. Will it become the darling of book clubs and the awards circuit? Again, probably not. But in both cases, you feel, Keith Ridgway won't care too much: the work is its own reward, and this work is quite rewarding indeed.

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