Keith Ridgway’s writing gets under my skin. I first encountered his work when I read Hawthorn & Child a surreal, esoteric crime novel like no other crime novel.
Even more intriguing was Animals, a novel which charts the mental and physical breakdown of an unnamed narrator as he wanders around his city and becomes terrifyingly aware of the creatures that live in such close proximity to humans. Animals featured a haunted office building, an 18-page long encounter with a dead mouse and the reiterated refrain that ‘none of this is true’. It captured my imagination with its darkly humorous take on the human condition.
Horses was Ridgway’s debut, first published in 1997 as part of a Faber anthology of new writing, before being reissued in 2003 as this slim novella. It is a much more accessible work than Animals or Hawthorn & Child, but still retains Ridgway’s clever stylistic skill of creating a wonderful sense of foreboding from the oddest and slightest of narrative events.
Horses opens in the aftermath of a crime. A small Irish town is being plagued by arson attacks and the latest one has resulted in the deaths of three horses belonging to Helen Brooks, daughter of the town’s doctor. She blames childlike Matthew Doyle, a man ‘unsuited for this world’ for the attacks, which Matthew denies. After Matthew confesses to the local priest that he knows who is responsible and is then found bloodied and beaten in the middle of the street, the search is on for the real culprit. All this plays out in the middle of a raging storm, adding to the sense of Irish Gothic that pervades the narrative.
In terms of plot, Horses is quite straightforward (for Ridgway) but it excels in its sense of atmosphere and strong characterisation. Matthew is the beating heart of the story, the village idiot who is smarter than he looks, but cannot come to terms with the fact that he has no idea who his parents are.
“I can’t say, Miss. I remember the Garda before Garda Cullen, and Garda Cullen was here a hundred years, and I remember the priest before the priest before Fr Devoy. So I must have been here for a long time, and I can’t remember being anywhere else and nobody knows the secret of me”
Everyone in the book is suffering a loss. Helen is mourning the death not only of her horses, but also the recent death of her mother, while Father Devoy wrestles with the complexities of his faith. Even the real arsonist is driven by his own sense of loss. Everyone here is trying to belong, while at the same time feeling cut adrift. As the rain continues to pour and the race to find out who killed the horses intensifies, Ridgway builds his claustrophobic narrative to a striking conclusion.
Ridgway is not afraid of being strange, or wrong footing his reader, yet he does so with elegant and assured writing. His books are fundamentally conventional stories, but he subverts them just enough to defy any expectations.
Keith Ridgway announced on Twitter a few weeks ago that he has a new book coming out in 2021, but as he deletes tweets as he posts them, this news remained on the site only briefly. It is a tantalising promise and I, for one, cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.
So there we have it – my 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge is complete! This is the first year that I have managed to review all the books singly and still have a few days to spare!
Read on: Book
Number Read: 275
Number Remaining: 471
20 Books of Summer: 20/20
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!