The new Hugo Hamilton book/novel Hand in the Fire continues his interest in the curiosity of language difference and the interpretations that people put on similar words in what we now consider multi-cultural situations.
I heard him speak at a Social Care conference at WIT about this time last year and he described the linguistic confusions of growing up with three languages – German from his mother, Gaeilge from his father a militant nationalist, who insisted that his family should only speak German or Irish, but not English. Of course, Hamilton learned English, or a particularly Dublin version from school and college. Some of his stories and novels are set in Europe. His 2003 book The Speckled People put him into an international bracket and his importance shifted from crime novels to first person engagement as art rather than narrative.
Hand in the Fire is a first person narrative of a vague Serbian immigrant Vid Cosic, a jobbing carpenter and odd job man who has a partly hidden secret of family matters who gets involved with a headstrong young Dublin lawyer Kevin Concannon who has a vicious streak in him, causing a man to be beaten and left for dead on the streets. Cosic is a suspect as he was there and the victim tries to implicate him.
The linguistic traps and ambiguity of ordinary words like the opening line “You have a funny way of doing things here “ – involves the reader in a partial mystery where Cosic traces the facts of a mysterious drowning of a pregnant woman on the Aran Islands.
After the initial mystery and confusion of language the story settles down to a less than riveting thriller of past sins, transgressions and guilty secrets. Three quarters of the way into the book I lost interest. An afterword chapter restored some faith in the author’s purpose but I expected more.