- 15 Jun 21
We Are All Just Prisoners Here
Nine years ago, no less an authority than well-respected fourth estate man Fintan O’Toole included Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child in his article, ‘Ten Things That Make Life Worth Living In 2012’, calling the author “a worthy inheritor” to “the modernist tradition in Irish Fiction” and quite correctly describing Ridgway’s first and second policemen book as “superbly written and compulsively readable.” As an aside, in the same article O’Toole managed to sum up the magic of a Patti Smith gig in a single paragraph, something it took your correspondent quite a bit more ink to do on these very pages, but I’m only young. Anyway, as O’Toole indicated, Ridgway is a writer of serious merit, so his first novel in several years is a welcome thing indeed.
This connected series of stories, set in the lower echelons of London society and around The Arms pub in Camberwell, finds characters trapped in lives they can’t escape from. A young couple are having a party and they attempt to butter up the elderly widow next door with chocolates and wine and the offer of headphones, which she refuses, before the event itself. Her husband would have taken her along but she’s just not that type. She’s drawn to the life going on the other side of the divide though and, after spotting a small hole in the plaster which she worms away at, bizarrely ends up wedged in the adjoining wall as she tries to get closer. Her one eye stares in, which a bored girl notices, and the widow wills her to hear her story.
In ‘The Camera’, Stan can’t break free of his pal Gary, who unnerves him with pictures put through his letterbox. If that wasn’t bad enough, he’s also held hostage in their dingy flat beside a pizza shop with girlfriend Maria by a fearless rat. Maria works as a library assistant in a rich kids’ school, and is lied to by a flighty staff member, Mrs Grant, who just wants to entertain, with a story about a joke so funny that it actually proves lethal to her husband. “He died laughing. Suddenly like that. You laugh, you throw back your head, the universe ends. That is a good way to go.” It seems to be more than anyone else here can hope for, a happy release, but it’s not true, the howling husband is a figment.
Druggy Tommy runs from the sun - he’s “dying in the street like an ant in a fire” -into a lover’s arms then freaks out in the back of a cab about being stuck in a cave. Background characters drift to the forefront telling their stories at the bar, like Yves whose name we can’t even be sure of, about would-be immigrants forced back by the bell, about other woman trapped in walls, and people who just vanish. David moves into the flat of the disappeared, and he disappears into the fifth room that only we, the readers as voyeurs, know about.
Pigeon, the plumber’s mate, gets locked in after a job and hides out in the attic, stuck, like everyone else, somewhere he doesn't want to be. Such human affairs are compared to the comings and the goings and the concerns of rodents, who whisper to us that we’ll be alright.
Everything comes back around to the party, where some of the joy and the song of life is in evidence, which we see through that eye in the wall, the reader as voyeur again. We look in on the world Ridgway has created, a world that “has no paths. And nothing can make them. And that we are no more than interlopers here” and we must surely recognise ourselves in “all these men with their unsubtle ghosts.”
A Shock is a fascinating, marvellously accomplished, and even haunting piece of work, and a worthy addition to anyone’s list of things that make life worth living in 2021.