‘A momentary balance’: memory and forgiveness in Inch Levels

Neil Hegarty adds a new, subtle layer to the literature of the northern archipelago by foreshortening the expectations, and lives, of his characters

 Lough Swilly viewed from  Fort Dunree. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Lough Swilly viewed from Fort Dunree. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

It is hard to think of a great Irish book that turns its back on the sea. The shifting borders between land and water offer the writer, and the reader, a horizon of possibility shaped by the squalls of weather and memory. In literature the two conditions are interconnected, the dark blow of a winter storm through a forlorn northern landscape suggestive of a different set of human relations than the warmth of a gentle sun.

Neil Hegarty’s Inch Levels creates an atmosphere of troubled memory around a frail promontory of reclaimed land in Lough Swilly, a borderland beyond the border with Derry. These folded seascapes of back lanes and sudden panoramas are symbolic of the North’s larger crumpled history, which surfaces in the novel as flashbacks to illuminate the wider patterns of war and migration that bear upon Derry’s otherwise apparent remove. This is a setting sketched before in Seamus Deane’s remarkable Reading in the Dark, in Brian Friel’s Translations and in Seamus Heaney’s Singing School.

Inch Levels is not a thriller or a detective novel despite the fact that its narrative turns on the killing of a young girl

Neil Hegarty adds a new and subtle layer to the literature of the northern archipelago by foreshortening the expectations, and the lives, of his characters. For his younger generation the Troubles remain as a tragic frame in which the image of all our human suffering is starkly drawn. This, I think, is the logic of Patrick Jackson’s languishing in a hospital bed in a tower block overlooking his school and the city, the fluorescent glare of the ward’s lights a symbol of the novel’s inability to look away. In Inch Levels secrets are the substance of the future, the securities of a society that has not yet learned to live in the open.

This is a condition both local and global, immersive and symbolic, as in Patrick Jackson’s memory of his sister Margaret pulling him beneath the waves, his eyes open to ‘the green sunlit water’ before ‘he was yanked down, towards the sandy, rocky bottom of the sea’. The episode, which is rescued by Patrick’s furious father crashing into the sea to haul out both children, introduces buoyancy as one of the novel’s key concerns. Inch Levels is a novel afloat on the seas of history, Patrick’s favorite historical figure Captain James Cook, an explorer of the Pacific who met his end in modern-day Hawaii. The connection between the port city of Derry and the maritime history of the British Empire as it expanded out and beyond the Irish coast is an invitation to think of Inch Levels as a deeper meditation on life and belonging than might first appear.

The novel’s central conceit is the murder of a local child, Christine Casey, who Patrick’s brother-in-law Robert knocks down in a country lane. In panic and rage Robert strikes the girl, hides her in his van and drives her to “the water’s edge”. Until then he thinks of himself as victim of an accident. But there, by the water, he ‘feels a movement, a beat of life’ and becomes a killer. The weight of Robert’s guilt anchors the other characters’ lives in the novel. They too float between surface and the dark depths, bound together by Patrick’s sister Margaret’s knowledge of her husband’s crime, of her anxiety for her family should anyone else find out, and of her confession to her brother Patrick. The morals of this equation are one of the novel’s archaic structures and relate to a time, not so far past, when Irish domestic life was governed by the fear of shame. Patrick shatters the manacles of this social bind when he calls the police to his deathbed to inform of Robert’s crime.

’Is there life before death?’ asked the darkly humorous Troubles graffiti: only just, answers Inch Levels, and only of a kind. The tide of time washes the sediment of memory towards characters whose footing is unsure on these precarious promontories. In this sense the novel’s setting is an extension of the everyday environment, nature shaped by humanity in a fragile equilibrium, the geometry of this balance under constant threat from vanity and anger.

Inch Levels allow for reflection on these wrong turns in their reminder of the other co-ordinates of life, of migratory birds and the blow of the wind, which is the substance of the novel’s closing pages. With Patrick dead and Robert arrested, the future is left to Margaret and her mother, Sarah. This is mindful of John McGahern’s insistence on the resilience of his female characters, and Hegarty’s quiet gesture towards the master registers in the subtle tones of these last paragraphs.

Choosing to strike out towards the beaches and the lough instead of turning into the river and woodland, Margaret and Sarah walked towards the place beyond the sea wall where Christine Casey was drowned. They offer no memorial but themselves, no flowers or card, thinking it better ‘to come naked, better to come as themselves’.

The mystery of the novel’s form resolves itself in this moment. Inch Levels is not a thriller or a detective novel despite the fact that its narrative turns on the killing of a young girl. Instead, Christine’s disappearance invites the reader to think of secrecy and revelation, which have broad ethical bearing in Troubles Derry. John Banville has trawled similar territory in his Benjamin Black novels, each of which dissects with dark grace the moral hypocrisies, and social violence, of 1950s Dublin, as has Tana French a little later. In Hegarty’s work, Margaret and Sarah begin their long walk to atonement sustained by memory and patience:

“So they struck out along the shingle, the two of them. The sky was lightening a little now, Margaret noticed: the disc of the sun was showing white, sailing behind thinning clouds; and their shadows were falling away behind them as they walked.”

Inch Levels is a novel of quiet revelation, whatever the dramas of its plot or settings. Its terrors happen in the bright summer months; however its weather is otherwise showery, fitful and grey. The final clearing of the clouds to a watery sun suggests a momentary balance. This, finally, is the novel’s northern aspect, a grieving futurity drawn in the intimate affections of the past, hope tempered by experience, and revelation by suffering.

  • Nicholas Allen is Director of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, and Franklin Professor of English, at the University of Georgia. Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty is September’s Irish Times Book Club selection. Over the next four weeks we shall publish a series of articles by the book’s editor, Neil Belton, as well as writers and critics including Danielle McLaughlin, Andrea Carter, Caitriona O’Reilly, Lucy Collins and Nicholas Allen. 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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