A polyphonic portrait of south London

Irish writer Keith Ridgway’s seventh novel begins with an account of a young gay couple hosting a noisy party, which is told from the perspective of their elderly neighbour. It channels the tensions of gentrification, but Ridgway’s use of close third-person narration to convey the protagonist’s thoughts, and hint at her repressed desire for another woman, makes for something timeless.

This section, titled “The Party”, succeeds as a standalone story (it appeared as such in The New Yorker) but, as A Shock is not a plot-driven novel, it’s giving nothing away to say it eventually circles back to the same party for the final chapter, albeit from a different character’s viewpoint.

In between, Ridgway provides a polyphonic portrait of contemporary south London in overlapping stories, conjuring its glorious grind of possibility, pubs, politics, sex and rats.

Ridgway uses free indirect style to take us deep inside characters’ minds. He tries to depict the way people think, which risks banality, especially when characters are – like Tommy in “The Sweat” chapter – on drugs. “This is not interesting,” observes Tommy at one point and you sense the author challenging his reader to stick with the story.

The pay-off isn’t always immediately apparent, but Ridgway’s artistry keeps you engaged. Every comma, broken-off thought and dash has been deliberated over. “The Flat” is the strongest chapter, the haunting story of David, a young man who moves into a flat whose previous tenants vanished. The landlord thinks they ran away without paying the rent, while their neighbours suspect something more sinister.

Ridgway has fun with the double meanings of “party”, populating his novel with, in one character’s phrase, “Labour-adjacent” people who see hope in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Housing is a recurring theme: “Good old Maggie,” says a man who bought his ex-council flat 20 years ago.

Younger members of London’s precariat, which here encompasses junior advertising executives, private-school librarians and labourers, live in large houses that have been converted into small flats by casually rapacious landlords.

Traditionalists may argue that A Shock isn’t a novel, but the line is increasingly blurred. Ideas and images echo through the chapters, with the protagonist of one reappearing at the edges of another, giving A Shock a novel’s thematic unity and formal patterning.

The jacket copy says Ridgway’s characters live on London’s “fringes”. The title could indicate that they’re living in the aftermath of a shocking event, such as the financial crisis of 2008, or in the build-up to something seismic, or that change is so fast nowadays that we’re swept along without registering what it means until later.

Or perhaps it’s none of these things. This is a novel that lends itself to interpretation – and is all the more profound and democratic for it.


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