Keith Ridgway: The Long Falling
The novel opens in a mimesis of Joyce’s, The Dead (the litany of snow falling all over Ireland) but this time it’s rain that is falling on Cavan ad Monaghan and on lakes and roads... but there is nothing imitative in the description of the gravestones at Cootehill sticking into the soil ‘like blunt knives’. The atmosphere is set; the sense of dread that permeates the book established, despite its early revelations (like a lot of literary novels) of the plot in advance, which leads of course to the inevitable working back, the teasing out, the use of memory as elaboration and clarification in the minds of the two main characters. Grace Quinn is English, middleaged, living on a farm in Monaghan with a brutal husband who blames her for the accidental death of their first son Sean. The husband’s drinking causes him to kill a little girl while driving. He gets away lightly with six months imprisonment. When he is released he takes his frustrations out physically on his wife. The other son, Martin, nineteen, tells his parents one evening that he is homosexual. The father assaults him. Martin leaves for Dublin. After receiving a brutal beating (Ridgway spares nothing in the graphics department here), Grace winds up killing her husband by crashing the car into him on the road where he is supposedly praying (is there an unwitting homage to Hamlet here: killing someone at their orisons, and consequently sending their soul to heaven?) at the same spot where he had killed the young girl. Grace escapes to Dublin and locates her son. At first Martin makes her welcome, but when his lover Henry comes home from Paris he finds her presence intrusive. And when she tells Martin that she killed his father, Martin turns against her. This could be problematic for some readers: the mother/son relationship had been built up by the author with reveries of Martin’s childhood with his mother, their loving walks together, the snatched moments of happiness from the tyrannical father. It is difficult it accept that he could turn away from her so suddenly. Also, the narrative changes focus frequently with different character chapters putting a strain on the reader. We are left to wonder who is the central charter, and even secondary characters are given entire chapters to themselves which weakens the narrative thrust. We also lose some sympathy for Martin in his moaning about Dublin beggars; the sense of foreboding is lost (he would have got them off his back if he had simply given them something, which is what his mother did).
The geography of Dublin and its streets are captured very well even if there is perhaps a little too much striving for effect with the many references to the ‘grey rain.’ And although Ridgway writes with a searing honesty about gay life in Dublin, he never explores the mother’s attitude towards her son’s gayness; it’s something that’s just accepted without words; she even goes to the gay bar with her son and his friends with whom she seems to become familiar all too quickly, as if he’d known them all her life, despite the age and cultural difference. Also the X case motif which runs through the novel (with references to it on the news on radio and televisions) about a raped girl seeking the right to travel for an abortion, doesn’t quite work; it belongs to a different story. There are characters waiting at the wings that need development instead of having the author distracting the reader with the X case: Philip, who seems to become Grace’s bosom buddy almost over night, is a cardboard cutout: a handsome goody two shoes. What motivates him to come to the assistance of a middleaged woman, a mere acquaintance? We are not told. And Sean, another of Martin’s friends, the investigative journalist, working on the X case, recording a confession from Grace, thinking he’s on to a big scoop, then tearing up the tape and disappearing from the scene. What was he supposed to represent? Some sort of secondary guilt in causing Grace to leave his flat in disarray? All the worrying of these characters for Grace does not convince – they don’t know her well enough to have such empathy. The problem is that there are too many characters. Philip disappears from a huge chunk of the novel only to reappear in cameo towards the end. We could have learned more about Detective Brady. Why is he sympathetic to Grace? Apart from being from Grace’s home place, what does he know about the father and the family background? There are hints but elaboration here could have added more poignancy to the story. Instead he’s just a shade like most of the others. And Henry – all the expectation built up about him with phone calls – can one say one really knows him?
In fairness, the tension is effectively built up in atmosphere and action. Detective Brady, who has sent the Quinn car to Forensics, has followed Grace to Dublin. She caught a glimpse of him in the gay bar but wasn’t sure; he looked like her dead husband. Leaving Sean’s house after her confession she wanders disorientated in the city. Sean tells Martin that his mother killed his farther. There then follow flashbacks with the two main characters going over those dramatic moments that we already know about; this works well enough. We learn that Grace confessed to Sean because she couldn’t face Martin directly; she knew Sean would tell Martin, but after her city wandering she returns to Martin’s flat and confesses herself to Martin. So why bother having her tell Sean in the first place? Unless perhaps to illustrate the disorientation in her mind, just as she confessed later to the landlady Mrs Talbot in whose house she winds up. We are lost a bit in Martin now as he breaks down in tears and asks her why she killed his father. She says she had no choice but Martin doesn’t buy this and it is hard to accept Martin here who had been defending his mother against the father as both of them suffered brutal assaults at his hands. Could he not understand her motive? And when the police call to Martin’s flat he says straight out to them without their even having to probe, that his mother killed his father.
There seems to be a great hurry to confess crimes as Mrs. Talbot listens to the details from Grace’s mouth. (Would the pathos have been greater if Grace had to bear these secrets alone?). And even this Mrs Talbot, are we convinced that she could be such a willing accomplice to a murderer? And then we’re subjected to all the details about Mrs. Talbot, about her sister and her accident, and her late husband, what befell her family, and we know this is authorial wandering, taking our attention away form the main thrust of the story, just as the X case itself has done in it’s striving for a cleverness which doesn’t come off (even the ambiguity in the ‘let her go, let her go,’ chant of the placard bearers to allow the rape victim to go to England detracts from the murder case in Cootehill which comes only as a secondary news item). There should be more delving into Grace and into Martin, particularly into his sudden turn around in his attitude towards his mother. She would do anything for her son: if giving herself up would bring his love back, she would do that, but she would not wail for her dead husband. But the realisation, despite the distraction of the X case or Mrs Talbot’s wandering talk, does eventually dawn on Grace as the police close in on her, that the killing of her husband did not free her (is that perhaps what Martin was implying by his hostility towards her?) but rather tied her to him ‘more than I ever was. I wanted to spit him out and swallowed him instead’
This story, despite its flaws, is moving in its portrayal of a mother and her son.