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.

with William Dyce's painting Pegwell Bay at Tate Britain

with William Dyce's painting Pegwell Bay at Tate Britain

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.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNeil Hegarty

It’s my birthday today and, as I explained last year, it’s a personal tradition to read a book I’ve never got around to reading for one reason or another. This year I consciously saved something until today. “Mystery, Inc” by Joyce Carol Oates was published in July this year as a standalone short story by Head of Zeus Books and part of Mysterious Press’ ‘Bibliomysteries’ series. Anyone who is familiar with the bulk of Oates’ writing knows she has a predilection for the macabre and a fascinating engagement with the tradition of gothic literature. This is most evident in her "gothic series" of five novels which first begins with "Bellefleur," but also in many of her short stories and the many novels she's written under pseudonyms. 

I can’t imagine a better story to have saved as a special treat. This book is a fantastically-enjoyable and hypnotically-narrated short crime story. It’s also a bibliophile’s dream as it centres on a beautiful old New England bookstore and includes exhaustive lists of special editions of books that are discussed with reverence: “signed first editions by John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, and S.S. Van Dine… 1888 first edition of A Study in Scarlet… first edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles…Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (priced at $75,000), signed by Dickens in his strong, assured hand, in ink that has scarcely faded!” The narrator greedily wishes to obtain these volumes himself and plays with the idea of stealing them. So surprising to read in a book someone recalling with wistful feeling the thrilling rush of shoplifting in a bookshop: “Ah, those days before security cameras!” But the narrator has visited the bookstore while wearing a disguise with the much more sinister intent of poisoning the owner so that he can eventually acquire the shop himself to add to his growing chain of mystery bookshops. The story is sumptuously detailed in its descriptions of the shop, books and artworks displayed. It provoked strong feelings of warm-hearted nostalgia in me as what reader hasn’t felt the pleasure of perusing the shelves of bookstores and all the treasures they contain?

As the plot thickens, the tension rises while the narrator talks with the gregarious owner Aaron Neuhaus over mugs of cappuccino. There is a kinship between the men, but at the same time the narrator sees himself as a predator intent on disposing of Neuhaus to take his business and he even imagines himself taking Neuhaus’ wife! He’s threatened by Neuhaus’ success, particularly the lucrative online bookselling he does. However, Neuhaus has less interest in the business side of things and is more a passionate reader who has a philosophical interest in the genre of mystery. He states that “It is out of the profound mystery of life that ‘mystery books’ arise. And, in turn, ‘mystery books’ allow us to see the mystery of life more clearly, from perspectives not our own.”

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  Aaron Neuhaus has a print of Goya's stark & haunting painting  The Dog  in his bookshop

Aaron Neuhaus has a print of Goya's stark & haunting painting The Dog in his bookshop

The tale turns as Neuhaus describes the history of his bookshop and the various ill-fates of the previous owners by tunnelling backwards in time like a ghost story about a cursed house. There is a shift in control as the narrator listens and it’s as if the predator has become the prey. The story ends in such a fascinatingly ambiguous way that left me unsettled and feeling a rush of wonder. This short story is in some ways like a compressed variation of the wonderful book-length thriller “Jack of Spades” which Oates published earlier this year. Anyone who is thrilled by this story will want to read this longer novel. It was such a joy reading "Mystery Inc" early this morning in my so-called "book nook" at the back of my apartment while drinking tea and listening to the airplanes somewhere over London humming by.

It felt so perfect and pleasurable reading Oates' story this morning that I felt connected to something greater. Not a higher intellectual or spiritual plane but that common ground of sharing a good story thrillingly told, taking part in that agreement between author and reader to indulge in a fantasy which plays upon the deepest murmurings of the subconscious. Like many people, I've encountered some difficult times in my life so I'm grateful for the peace offered by this solitude to read, participate in such enjoyable fiction and reflect.

Tonight I’m looking forward to seeing Sufjan Stevens perform at the Royal Festival Hall and having some dim sum with friends beforehand. Thanks to everyone who has been in touch with me over the past year to discuss books and suggested more things to read.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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