Tag Archives: Head of Zeus

The Jewel by Neil Hegarty: A multi-faceted gem

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

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover by Michael Andreasen: A strange and wonderful collection

Cover imageEach and every one of the short stories in Michael Andreasen’s The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is a work of surreal, off-the-wall fantasy, about as far from my usual literary purview as you can get yet they had me transfixed, wondering what kind of wacky journey Andreasen was going to take me on next. Comprising twelve stories, it’s is the kind of book you’ll either love or hate but don’t assume which of those two categories you’ll fall into. You may find yourself surprised.

From the get-go you know you’re in discombobulating territory as a loving son remembers the many happy times they have shared before his father is crated up in his wheelchair and dropped into the sea. Next, a man longs for his wife after he and his unconsummated one-night-stand are abducted by aliens (yes, I know) and takes radical action to find her. In the eponymous story a crew look on helplessly, quarrelling amongst themselves, fretting about their cannibalistic admiral and being propositioned by mermaids as a many tentacled sea monster tightens her grip on what she hopes is her new lover. One of my favourites has a group of saints manifested in a parlour, hampered by their idiosyncrasies, from Saint Tongue of Flame who consumes half a bottle of whisky with disastrous results to Saint Upside-down Skull who has no one to heal. I could go on but that will give you a flavour of this strange, often very funny collection.

There are recognisable themes running through Andreasen’s stories – a few digs at religion, a compassion for the human state – but what makes these stories work is his often darkly bizarre humour and his arresting writing. In ‘Jenny’ a brother’s devotion to his headless sister constricts his own life but any sentimentalism is punctured by the story’s blackly comic ending. The word pictures of ‘The Sea Beast Takes a Lover’ graphically summon up a B-movie monster, desperate with love. The entire collection is studded with wonderfully striking images and phrases:

There had also been reports of small children being strategically lured away from their playmates by metal hunting parties and pounced upon en masse, pulled down by a frenzy of silver claws and tiny, stainless steel teeth

The mermaids are blue-skinned and black-eyed, but apparently literate enough to tackle the Brontës and Isaac Asimov

The time travellers who had left earlier reenter the conference room, which is now a cereal bowl of priceless historical debris

But most important, the bear taught him orienteering, not by reading maps or stars but by following the compass of his own loneliness

Hard to do justice to fiction so very different from what I usually read but I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and gave this one a try.

Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty: Pay attention…

Cover imageHistory, family and otherwise, is woven through the fabric of this accomplished first novel which seems appropriate given that Neil Hegarty’s previous books deal with the subject. Set in Derry against the background of the Troubles, Inch Levels is about a young man with only a few weeks to live, wrestling with a dilemma and the tortured family history that has led him to it.

Barely into his thirties, Patrick Jackson has been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. He lies in his hospital bed listening to the ringing of the bell in the nearby school where he taught, trying to stave off his pain with memories. He has much to contemplate, his reverie interrupted by the visitors he doesn’t want to see, the sometimes patronising attentions of the nurses he would rather not have to endure. Each day his mother, Sarah, or his sister, Margaret, come to visit him but it’s only Margaret who’s welcome. Patrick’s reflections are studded with vivid memories – a day with his family at the beach; a march in his hometown of Derry which ended in bloodshed; the loving attentions of Cassie the only person Sarah seemed able to trust – but the memory which haunts him is not his own: the events leading to the death of an eleven-year-old girl one autumn day in 1983. As Patrick’s recollections unfold they reveal a family whose emotions have been smothered: a mother closed off, unable to express affection; a father doing the best he can but unable to compensate and two children, confused and resentful but knowing that each is all the other has.

Hegarty’s writing is often striking, particularly when describing the natural world: ‘the landscape was a palette of greens, changing with height into the deeper green-brown of bracken, purple of heather, hard silver glint of scree-strewn slopes’ vividly summons up an Irish hillside. It’s a novel which shows rather than tells, repaying close attention. Piece by piece Hegarty slowly reveals what has led Sarah into her emotional vacuum and the consequences it has had. Written in the main from Patrick’s point of view, the narrative smoothly shifts from character to character, answering questions but often prompting more. It’s adroitly done: so much is left unsaid in this family haunted by events that only one of them understands. Quietly impressive and wholly engrossing, Inch Levels is a fine debut which gently leads its readers to a resolution entirely in keeping with what’s gone before.