Every family has their own social rules and ways of communicating with each other. Often things are left unsaid or hidden, but the way each family works around these areas of silence is unique. As a terminally ill man only in his 30s, Patrick is at a stage where he doesn’t need to mince his words. He’s laid up in a hospital where the nurses quietly recognize he’s close to death. When family members such as his mother Sarah, his sister Margaret or her husband Robert come to visit he makes it very clear whether they are wanted or not. The novel is framed around the mystery of a missing local girl and her mother’s subsequent suicide. However, the majority of this novel is concerned with the different points of view of this Northern Irish family through three generations, how the Troubles impacted them personally and patterns of abuse which trickle down their bloodline. It shows how at this crucial stage in his life Patrick chooses to be radically honest. This novel artfully gets at the subtleties of family life: what’s left unspoken and the impact this has on relations over time.
Whenever a painting is described in a novel I’m reading I like to go on a pilgrimage to actually view this work of art myself whenever possible. This happened when I read Ali Smith’s novel “How to be Both” which led me to The National Gallery to see a painting by Francesco del Cossa. In “Inch Levels” there is an emotional confrontation between Patrick and his sister Margaret when he’s visiting her in London and they take a trip to Tate Britain. Here they see Pegwell Bay, a 19th century painting by William Dyce. So I went to see this painting for myself one morning. It feels significant to this novel for the way the painter portrays a family on a seaside trip engaged in their own activities. Many scenes in the novel (including a trip to a coastal area that gives this book its title) are described in a similar way where each member of the family is entirely consumed in their own world of emotion and aren’t able to connect with the family members around them. It’s haunting the way the painting suggests a family that is unified in their activity, but psychologically distant from one another.
A crucial character at the centre of this novel is a woman named Cassie. She’s an orphan who enters the family when Sarah was a girl and her mother died. Rather than find a new wife to help keep up his household, her father chooses to take in this girl who is described as simplistic and may suffer from some form of autism. She forms a crucial kind of centre for the family and sometimes becomes a confidant for the things which the rest of the family can’t confess to one another. There are also some wonderful touches of humour she brings – such as a scene when Margaret and Patrick are children stealing from the kitchen’s treat jar (which are treats meant for a pet). It’s interesting the way she offers a perspective on the family to the reader – even if she doesn’t often make her opinions known to those around her.
The changing political climate of the country serves as a backdrop for several parts of the novel. Sometimes characters are direct witnesses to conflict such as the Bogside Massacre and other times larger events make little personal impact such as a scene of national independence where Sarah finds “Her mind strayed from history: she worried about the stew Cassie had made and left for tea; gone too long and it would dry up.” Hegarty is skilful in the way he describes these larger events being absorbed into every day life such as frequently bombings where it’s felt “It was abnormal and it was normal, all at the same time.” It gives a powerful sense of the way we are both connected to and outside of the history we inhabit.
“Inch Levels” is a novel which becomes quietly absorbing over time as the intricacies of this family’s life and their relationships become clear. Rather than create scenes of high drama, Hegarty conveys deep levels of emotion through what is left unsaid and unacknowledged in the cramped parameters of family life.