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Four in the Morning
Nick McDowell

Four in the Morning
Nick McDowell
London 1997

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Matthew Kerrigan has to grow up quickly at 10 years old when both his parents die in a car crash. (This is a book that likes to deal in hard blows). David, an older boy at his public school is the only one who truly recognises the pain of his grief. Matthew loves him but is also, rightly as it turns out, scared of him. David introduces Matt to alcohol and then to LSD on his 16th birthday. He slips easily out of reality in an orange VW with rain hammering on the roof and back to the Downs of his missing childhood.

McDowell has crafted a powerful, intense and disturbing novel that does indeed evoke the deadest time of night, four a.m. He is keenly psychologically accurate on both a male and female level, particularly on the darker, more susceptible sides of human nature. He is suburb on addiction, the need for drugs, alcohol, for people, to fill the gap that many feel exists in their lives, however outwardly successful they may appear.

For Matthew and Alison this gap becomes a very real one with the loss of her brother and his friend, David. David is the focus of emotion in this book despite being a largely absent character. It gave me the disquieting but not unpleasant sensation of watching a play which describes what the sub-characters are doing when the main character goes off stage. David’s vibrant energy, his relentless charm and his constant need to push back the boundaries of experience are the brighter side of a destructive nature that is as manipulative as it’s attractive. His death early on in the book brings Matthew and Alison together in a relationship that explores the pain and difficulty of a love affair that sprung from shared grief.

This book has an insidious style, it is seductive and dangerous. McDowell has a knack of peeling back the skin to expose raw emotions with all their contradictions and confusions. We see the woman behind the tough ad executive, the way people use sex, the psychotherapist who is more damaged than her patients, the excuses the dry alcoholic makes to himself as he takes that first drink, that first hit of heroin.

Heroin addiction is explored in a sickeningly smooth manner; more English Opium Eater than Trainspotting. It is portrayed as the escapists ultimate tool. This isn’t a moral tale, it seeks simply to let us into the mind of the addict and follow his reasoning. The things that initially electrified the adolescent boy’s mind, a breast beneath a dress, the taste of lipstick on a joint, loose their attraction next to the half bottle of wine and the road to oblivion. Even the narrative prose seems to take on a subtle detachment that mirrors the addicts’ slide into a dreamy, unreal existence.

From the start there is an underlying tension in the narrative that builds up beautifully to the death of Matthew’s parents but then remains for the rest of the book. We are slightly uncomfortable as we read, alert to possible catastrophe, immersed in the characters’ grief and guilt and pleasure. But it is this that helps to make the book so compelling. My only complaint would be that while the male characters tend to have a masochistic relationship with drugs, the women have a masochistic dependency on the men, which is surely a double curse. In all other respects, this is a dynamic, provocative and deeply enjoyable book.

Reviewed by Jessica Woollard


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