Inch Levels’ still surface conceals deep currents of emotion

What moved me to publish Neil Hegarty’s novel was a quality often used to block a novel’s inclusion on a fiction list: its quietness and confidence in that measured tone

Neil Hegarty: knows how to leaven his tone with a touch of salty wit

Neil Hegarty: knows how to leaven his tone with a touch of salty wit

 

There’s a moment of connection when you feel immediately won over by a writer’s voice, and hope that he can sustain it over the difficult length of a book without lapsing into unnecessary loud gestures or mere blandness. An editor often longs to experience a sustained mood and a mature intelligence that doesn’t need to resort to insistent messaging of some large issue, or parade one of the stock villains of recent Irish history (who are real enough, but not in the cartoon versions of themselves that undermine their actual menace in some Irish novels).

If he were a jazz pianist he would be a Bill Evans or a Craig Taborn rather than an Art Tatum, stillness and careful development instead of sweeping arpeggios

What moved me to publish Neil Hegarty’s novel was a quality often used to block a novel’s inclusion on a fiction list: its quietness, and its confidence in that measured tone. Quietness is said not to sell; John McGahern was far less successful than more performative Irish artists, and won fewer prizes, though he will still be read when they are out of print. I was drawn in by Hegarty’s novel, its subtlety and lightness of touch concealing deep currents of emotion. Irish realism can of course be a little too dignified or solemn for its own good, but Hegarty knows how to leaven his tone with a touch of salty wit. If he were a jazz pianist he would be a Bill Evans or a Craig Taborn rather than an Art Tatum, stillness and careful development instead of sweeping arpeggios and twirling embellishments.

Inch Levels is set in a war-torn Derry, but it is not obviously a novel of the Troubles and the death and the promise of death it contains are only tangentially related to political violence; it is a novel about a Catholic family, but the hurts it conceals are not the result of child abuse by a predatory priest or teacher, and the family survives on a reticence and silence that would satisfy the strictest Presbyterian. They talk sharply and ironically, but the important things are left unsaid and the dying young man whose eyes open in the first chapter faces oblivion without hope, his short time remaining made even more bleak by what he knows but can’t say. Patrick Jackson is a character who has learned to live within austere limits and with his fierce, clever and damaged mother and his deeply unhappy sister. There is no great revelation, but there is a kind of quiet atonement at the end, no more than that and no more than there should be.

Inch Levels is set, mostly, in and around the Derry-Donegal coast and the shores of Lough Swilly rather than the Bogside and that background of enormous Atlantic skies and breaking waves is the right one for a stoical novel about the consequences of a squalid, meaningless and careless act and a mother’s buried grief. I’m very glad that I was able to publish it.
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

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