Friday, June 11, 2010

Review of Hand in the Fire by Hugo Hamilton (Fourth Estate, 2010)

Vid Cosic has moved to Ireland from Serbia to make a new life, first working as a night security guard and then on building sites. A few months after arriving he finds a mobile phone on the street and contacts the owner, Kevin Concannon, a lawyer of low morals, to let him know he’s found it. So starts an intense and dysfunctional friendship. Not long after meeting for the first time, Cosic is confronted by a drunken work colleague and Concannon violently attacks him leaving him for dead. Only it is Cosic who is arrested and prosecuted, feeling obliged to stay silent to protect Concannon. Awaiting trial, Cosic starts to undertake repair work on the house of Concannon’s mother, getting to know his wider family and its troubled stories. Two, in particular, fascinate him – the death of a young, pregnant women washed up on the Aran Islands and the disappearance of Kevin’s father. Bound together through acts of violence, betrayal and family secrets, their tenuous friendship is placed under more and more pressure. The opening lines can be found here.

The title of the book refers to Concannon’s definition of a friend – someone who will put their hand in the fire to protect someone regardless of the consequences. And this is the sentiment at the heart of the book, which explores the nature of friendship, family and the immigrant experience. It’s a well written story, with some nice observations and insights. I’m not sure to what extent it was an Irish story though, which the opening lines strongly suggest it will be. Ireland is there, but more as a backdrop rather than as contextual arena. The plot is relatively straightforward and clearly telegraphed, though one suspects it was never meant to have a twist, being an in-depth study of relationship than a mystery, despite the hauntings of the violent attack and the drowned woman that surfaces throughout. The characterisation of Cosic is well developed, though he seemed overly naïve, pliant and childlike at times, to the point of lacking credibility, but Concannon remains something of an enigma. The reader is repeatedly told he is charming, but there is precious little evidence that that’s the case, and one is left wondering why his long suffering girlfriend or Cosic tolerate his selfish and confrontational behaviour. It’s not that he’s not a believable character, but rather that the character that the reader engages with is not the same one that the other characters seemingly interact with, producing a strange dischord. Overall, I found it an interesting read, with some nice writing and observations, but the central relationship never seemed fully credible and the plot failed to really excite.

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