Inch Levels: a disputed territory, an undisputed talent
Hegarty depicts a family and a community suspended almost to stasis, frozen by the past, exuding a tortured history’s resentment and regret
Neil Hegarty: masterfully captures is a landscape and a community firmly under the spell of the past
Neil Hegarty could have set his debut novel anywhere, but I’m grateful he chose the locale of his childhood berth, the Derry and Donegal landscapes of the 1970s and ’80s, a coastal and rural setting sliced by the Irish Border. Like Neil, I was born into a Catholic family at the start of the Troubles, and as writers we share the same Border hinterland, a disputed territory still coming to terms with its violent past.
By a fluke of circumstance, the same London publisher published both our novels at the tail end of 2016, two ostensibly different books but with a similar fictional starting point, an unsolved murder within a close-knit Northern Irish community and a body gruesomely dumped in a picturesque setting. However, in Inch Levels, the mystery of the victim’s death, a little girl who disappears while cycling down an overgrown lane, is suspended at the very beginning and revisited only in the final chapters.
It gave me a writerly lift to find an author from my own corner of the world talented and brave enough to communicate the truth hidden in these humdrum settings
What the reader gets instead is the literary equivalent of a long photographic exposure of the Derry and Donegal borderlands; a sensuous spectrum of indifferent seasons blurring into each other; a sense of time passing tensely and a family rearranging itself around a dark secret, a blot on the otherwise idyllic setting.
In the place of a detective, we get a dying man, a history teacher called Patrick Jackson, who on his deathbed finally makes the brave decision to save his surviving family members from the corrosive hold of the past. Hegarty admits to his oblique narrative technique only at the end of the book – “His story would not evolve in this way. It would barely evolve at all.” – but by then the patient reader has understood the true premise of the book. Hegarty is depicting a family and a Border community suspended almost to the point of stasis, frozen by the past, their very breaths exuding the resentment and regret of a tortured history.
It was with the admiration of a writer who has obsessively set six novels in a similar landscape that I read Inch Levels. I pored over Hegarty’s lush physical and meteorological descriptions like a jaded photographer squinting into a camera with a strange new lens, one with a longer focal length and a wider angle of vision, making the backdrop and changing seasons as pin sharp as the narrative foreground. Here were the same slanting fields, the same introverted country lanes, the same people, the same language and intricacies of a society brought into unsettling focus. The same landscape that I had been lugging around for years, the cultural baggage of a Catholic from the North, a member of that tribe of internal exiles, caught on the wrong side of partition, and who, with Brexit looming and political stalemate taking hold in the Northern Ireland Assembly, look set to become the unluckiest losers in the history of this island.
It gave me a writerly lift to find an author from my own corner of the world talented and brave enough to put readers in the picture, to communicate the truth hidden in these humdrum settings. In Inch Levels, Hegarty creates an environment so palpable the reader can almost wade through the swathes of whin bushes “throwing out their languorous, incongruously tropical coconut scent”, but always there is the menacing reminder that this is a landscape of hunters and fugitives, and that dangerous actions are happening close by.
For my entire childhood and adolescence, taking a walk anywhere in Northern Ireland was inseparable from the sensation of being sighted along the barrel of a gun
For my entire childhood and adolescence, taking a walk anywhere in Northern Ireland was inseparable from the sensation of being sighted along the barrel of a gun. At one point, Patrick recalls heading into Derry city with his sister Margaret – “There were figures moving on the walls itself, soldiers of course, with binoculars and cameras and more guns…he glanced up and then away, Let them look, he thought brazenly, much good may it do them.” Just after the juvenile Margaret blows out the candles on her birthday cake, the windows of their house buckle with the impact of a bomb exploding – “The sound wave travelled along the river from the city and collided against the walls of the house and the windows bulged in on us, but did not quite explode…..We watched them buckle and there was the usual short silence and then we got back to our cake.”
During the Troubles, horrible things happened to lots of people, and many families like the Jacksons kept secrets and concealed the identities of killers. What Hegarty masterfully captures is a landscape and a community firmly under the spell of the past, haunted, watched and revisited by ghosts. Patrick and his sister are ensnared by a shared secret – “something was being ignored, was being skirted with deftness and efficiency...ignoring the howls at the door, the fist thumping the table, the need for vengeance and justice.”
We keep waiting to see which character Hegarty will force to reveal the terrible truth, to take the poisonous steps back into the past. However, the narrative constantly turns away from that onerous task, lingering instead at the feast in full view, the gallery of landscapes, internal and external, that lead the reader’s eye away from the ugly event with which the book begins. These include the secret gardens that Patrick has been dreaming about since childhood and which become a refuge during his illness and an aide to his silence – “mental maps…incontrovertible maps that stood the test of time and memory, that could not be contradicted”. We learn that from his earliest days, Patrick has been putting together “a map of solidity, of security, compensating their absence elsewhere”. Even in hospital, he cannot help projecting himself onto the staff postcards pinned to a corkboard on the wall.
In so doing, Hegarty reminds us that the most difficult landscape to inhabit is the one closest to home. In the case of Northern Ireland, it’s a terrain saturated by secrets and stories that have not yet been told and perhaps will never be told, a long line of stories that represent the lifetimes of so many people suspended in grief and regret, who are waiting for someone in the know to pluck up the courage and ring the police before it’s too late. Dredging the past is not an easy thing, but the truth, no matter how twisted or incomplete, has the strength to filter through the tightest defences, the layers of maps and landscapes we carry inside ourselves as mental refuges. Patrick, like Hegarty and other writers who are the so-called children of the Troubles, cannot escape the tale, no matter how dark the telling.
Anthony J Quinn’s latest novel, Undertow, is published in December, Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty is September’s Irish Times Book Club selection. The series culminates in an interview with Neil Hegarty conducted by Laura Slattery of The Irish Times at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin’s Parnell Square on Thursday, September 28th, at 7.30pm. It will be recorded for a podcast which will be available from September 30th on irishtimes.com