Review: Hand in the Fire by Hugo Hamilton
(Fourth Estate £12.99)
'You have a funny way of doing things here," Vid Cosic says in the opening sentence of Hugo Hamilton's new novel. Vid is a Serbian carpenter who has left his troubled homeland in search of work in Ireland and from the outset his observations are those of someone who is "in between places, neither here nor there".
Displacement and exile, whether geographical or psychological, are recurring themes in Hamilton's fiction and Vid isn't the only person in this novel suffering from a sense of dislocation.
The young lawyer Kevin, whose mislaid mobile phone Vid finds in the street, has a dysfunctional family background he doesn't want to talk about and throughout the book other characters emerge who are similarly adrift.
However, friendship with Kevin offers Vid the chance of somehow belonging to this Ireland in which he's found himself. Indeed, such is Vid's desire for local acceptability that when the volatile Kevin violently assaults another man and Vid is charged with the attack, he keeps quiet about his new friend's culpability -- right through the court case, which ends with Vid being freed on a technicality.
Kevin had already informed him that "a true friend was somebody who would put his hand in the fire for you" and so when charged with the offence, Vid reflects that "at last I had a friend and was beginning to feel at home here, so I couldn't afford to lose that".
Coming from someone facing a probable term in jail, and for a crime he didn't commit, that's lame reasoning and seems dictated more by authorial demands than by considerations of character -- and it's especially hard to swallow given that Kevin's much-mentioned charm isn't apparent to the reader. Instead, he remains a thuggishly unlikeable figure throughout, more of a plot device than a person.
Indeed, the book's awkward narrative lurches seem largely designed to encourage Vid's bemused observations on this alien land in which he finds himself, though it's hard to pinpoint exactly when the action is set.
Overhearing pub talk, Vid surmises that "the top most despised people in this country were Dev, Cromwell and Margaret Thatcher", which suggest the 1980s at the latest, though the reader remains frustratedly unsure about that.
And sometimes Vid seems more conversant with Irish history than he should be.
At one point he's bringing a girlfriend to "a place called Howth", while at other times he's offering detailed potted accounts of the Troubles and of Teddy's ice cream shop in Dun Laoghaire. So which is he -- the put-upon naif from eastern Europe or the fluent rough guide to Ireland?
Along the way, the reader meets Kevin's separated mother, who's caring and gentle at one moment and disconcertingly rude and coarse the next, and her estranged husband, whose act of domestic violence in the past has seen him exiled and alienated from his family. There's also Kevin's troubled young sister, pregnant and without any purpose to her life.
And further back in the father's west of Ireland history, there's the story of another young pregnant woman, who felt so exiled by her own community that she drowned herself. She becomes a recurring figure in the novel, haunting the thoughts of Vid, though she registers less as a persuasive presence than as a device grafted on to the novel for symbolic purposes that remain obscure to this reader.
At the end, a flight to where she came from by Vid and Kevin's sister seems to suggest the prospect of some kind of redemption and some sense of belonging, but again that feels awkwardly tacked on rather than the inevitable outcome of convincing characterisation and persuasive narrative. In short, the book's admirable intentions are more ambitious than its wobbly storyline can bear.
Buy 'Hand in the Fire' from Eason