A murder mystery wrapped in a repressed Irish society
Inch Levels satisfyingly explores the consequences – emotional, psychological, social – of that which seemingly cannot be spoken
That the Irish are world-renowned talkers and yet contrive to say very little is an irony not lost on Neil Hegarty
Inch Levels, Neil Hegarty’s auspicious debut novel, is a complex, multi-stranded narrative. The novel opens with a dying man, Patrick Jackson, piecing together his knowledge about the disappearance of a schoolgirl, Christine Casey, which has occurred in the city of Derry a short time before.
Patrick lies in his hospital bed and pictures the scene of Christine’s abduction with hallucinatory precision: the dripping autumn hedges, the sound of water in the roadside ditches, the girl cycling home alone. The child vanishes; almost immediately, her abandoned bicycle is spotted by a farmer who recognises its significance; later, her schoolbag is found. And five days later, her body is discovered by a couple out walking their dogs, at a place called Inch Levels, an area of reclaimed land formed when a railway embankment was built along the shoreline of Lough Swilly. The walkers find Christine’s body submerged near the shore and it is apparent that she has been murdered. Patrick Jackson ranges feverishly over all of the details in the case, which culminate with a second tragedy: the suicide of Christine’s grief-stricken mother by drowning some weeks later.
Patrick is still a young man, in his thirties, but he is dying of cancer in a hospital in Derry. We are made to wonder what his connection is to Christine Casey, as he deals testily with a series of unwelcome visitors to his hospital room: chiefly his mother Sarah, his sister Margaret and her husband, Robert. Patrick is not an easy patient; he lashes out at his nurses and is uncommunicative or sarcastic with his visitors, but he is not self-pitying. He is evidently burdened by some terrible knowledge, but the nature of this knowledge is not immediately clarified.
Instead, the reader is led to wonder why Patrick seems to loathe his family – who seem middle-class and unremarkable – and why he seems to loathe himself. This slow unravelling of threads of consequence stretching back far into the past comprises the main narrative structure of the novel. It enacts a drama of revelation and withholding which satisfyingly echoes on a formal level its dominant motif: the consequences – emotional, psychological, social – of that which is unspoken, of that which seemingly cannot be spoken.
One of Hegarty’s most effective techniques is to present the same scene from several perspectives, giving the reader a sense of the entirety of an event’s emotional ramifications
One of Hegarty’s most effective techniques is to present the same scene from several different perspectives, giving the reader a sense of the entirety of an event’s emotional ramifications. A striking example of this is the novel’s description of the departure of the last British warship from Lough Swilly in 1938 – witnessed by a young Sarah, her widowed father Brendan and Cassie, a home help sent from the local convent who has become part of the family, an ally of Sarah, and who will eventually become an important link to Sarah’s past.
The parish priest asks Sarah what she has made of the spectacle, and she answers unguardedly, defending her position, a reaction interpreted negatively by the priest, and by her father as Sarah possibly ruining her chances of gaining a county scholarship, the recommendation for which is within the priest’s gift. Cassie, meanwhile, looks on in helpless distress. This scene, with its subtle grasp of the mechanics of power within society and between genders, and especially of parental love which because of social disempowerment is closely linked to fear, is a tour de force of psychological insight:
“There was a look in the priest’s eye that Brendan saw, and understood. An intervention was necessary: too many people were listening, and Sarah already getting a name around town for being too clever by half. It was a deadly game, this: for the future might keep her here; she must be roped in for her own sake.”
These psychological nuances echo through the generations, and always there is the pressure of the unspoken; that which has been, principally for the sake of survival, repressed. A catastrophic event in Sarah’s past lies behind her difficult relationships with her husband and both her children, and they struggle with these consequences in their own lives without understanding why things have turned out as they have. A key piece of information has been denied them. As a study of transgenerational trauma this novel is both astute and brave; it poses questions about the effects of “normalised” violence, both social and interpersonal, on human personality and relationships.
In another key scene, the family gathers to celebrate Margaret’s 30th birthday and while they are enjoying dinner, a bomb blast in Derry city centre sends shockwaves towards the peaceful suburb:
“Why remember that bomb? Of all the bombs, why that one? I remember it, [Patrick] thought, because a few minutes after Margaret blew out the candles on her birthday cake, the windows buckled the way they always did when a bomb exploded. 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.”
The fact that Patrick sees this as a fairly common experience is striking; in Troubles-era Derry, of course, it is a commonplace enough occurrence. This is the time of “whatever you say, say nothing” and the imperative to “say nothing” operates not simply on a societal level, Hegarty implies, but on all levels of Irish life. “Don’t be telling too much,” one of the characters says, “Don’t be letting on.”
That the Irish are world-renowned talkers and yet contrive to say very little is an irony not lost on Hegarty; and this aspect of the novel was closest to the bone for me; no-one who grew up in Ireland before 1990 can fail to recognise the heavy burden of silence, the maintenance of appearances at all costs, and the damaging hypocrisy that was an endemic part of Irish society and with which we are perhaps only now collectively beginning to come to terms.
In this sense the setting of the novel is significant; the main action takes place in the early eighties, a time when the Troubles were at their height, before the rigid, unholy alliance of Church and State could be questioned. Patrick is the character through whose eyes we recognise this burden; he carries it internally and it is not an interpretive stretch to view his illness, destroying him in his prime, as the somatic consequence of these inherited, internalised codes of silence.
This recognition has formal corollaries for the novel too: it is no surprise that little if any information is gained through dialogue between the characters – often they communicate in incomplete phrases, in cutting asides. We are reminded of Forster’s imperative: “Only connect!” – although here, life is lived in fragments and a painful disconnection is the rule.
Neil Hegarty catches all of these psychosocial currents with accuracy, yet the narrative is not burdened by them, and the reader is gripped by some masterfully handled storytelling – this is a murder mystery after all. We do eventually find out who killed Christine Casey, but before we reach full knowledge we are taken down some very shadowy, and disturbingly familiar, avenues in our collective psyche.
Caitríona O’Reilly is a poet and former editor of Poetry Ireland Review. 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, 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