It’s three years since I reviewed Neil Hegarty’s first novel, Inch Levels, describing it as ‘quietly impressive’. It’s a subtle, perceptive piece of fiction which I enjoyed very much but it’s often the case that second novels fall far short of debuts. Not so with The Jewel which not only met but far exceeded my expectations. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s book explores the lives of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime.
Painted on Irish linen by a once-obscure nineteenth-century artist, The Jewel is Emily Sandborne’s finest work, folded into her coffin at her request after her suicide then later disinterred. It’s gorgeous; the malachite set into its mounted subject’s armour glittering against the distemper which never seems to fade. This is the prize stolen from the refurbished Irish National Gallery on the eve of its reopening. Distemper is the medium, chosen by John – painter, self-confessed counterfeiter and thief – whose childhood Deptford home was demolished much to his mother’s disgust, reluctant to move to the council’s much-vaunted tower block. Roisin grew up in rural Ireland, escaping tittle-tattle and judgement to study art history in London but not the childhood tragedy which has left her feeling forever responsible. Ward works for an EU-funded agency, tasked with helping police solve art theft. Born in Dublin, he lives in London, seemingly locked into a dysfunctional relationship with his partner. The theft of Sandborne’s masterwork brings these three together, each with their own many-layered story to unfold.
The Jewel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of its three main protagonists, each of whose alternating narratives follows them from childhood to the early-hours theft. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. The loss of home is a common thread, whether under duress or a need to escape what turns out to be inescapable. Each of the character’s narratives is anchored in a strong sense of place as if underpinning this loss, vividly evoked by Hegarty’s striking writing – the descriptions of Deptford are particularly atmospheric while the claustrophobia of small-town ‘80s Ireland is sharply portrayed. He’s just as smart in nailing organisations:
And the agency was just this sort of place: a bit bitchy, incestuous, like a university department, like the Borgias in the matter of rivalry and career development
As ever, writing about a book with which I’ve been so struck is much more difficult than reviewing one I’ve simply enjoyed. There’s so much to think about and to admire in this engrossing, accomplished novel that I’ve barely done it justice. Best just read it.
Head of Zeus: London 2019 9781789541809 368 pages Hardback