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
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
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
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