"... Like friendship, for example. Nobody does friendship like you do in this country." The way friendship is offered, or withdrawn, in an "all or nothing" way.
These opening thoughts in Hugo Hamilton's new novel, "Hand in the Fire", set much of the tone and theme in this thought-provoking story of one man's unrelenting efforts to fit in and make a home for himself in a new country: Ireland. Vid Cosic (accents not shown), a recent immigrant from Serbia, recounts his observations and reactions to his new surroundings that reveal as much his bemusement as his confusion. He approaches people with a naïve trusting innocence, willingly participating in whatever activities he is invited to. Insecure in his own judgement of what he observes, he, nonetheless, carries a strange sense of foreboding of a disaster that he might cause without intending to, due to his "misreading" and "mishearing" of people's language and gestures. Drawing on his personal experiences of growing up in a two-language and two-culture family, surrounded by a predominant third, Hamilton is familiar with this sense of "alienation", of not belonging to the society in which he lived. His mother was German, his father a staunch Irish nationalist, who forbade the use of English and insisted on writing the family name in the Irish way. His childhood memoir, "The Speckled People", captures his own experience brilliantly. Effortlessly, Hamilton slips into the mind of Vid, who has not - yet - developed any of the inner protective sensors that are required to discriminate between what is true and what is false or exaggerated, how to avoid misinterpreting what is being meant rather than said. Starting with his strong central protagonist in a midst of a whole range of well depicted diverse individuals, the author builds an increasingly dramatic story that delves into fundamental themes of friendship and loyalty, rejection and betrayal, and above all, the vital need to belong: to a family, to a place and to a country.
Coincidence and a violent encounter outside a pub, tie Vid's life together with that of Kevin, a young, ambitious lawyer. Surprisingly for Vid, an immediate friendship develops: "A true friend was somebody who would put his hand in the fire for you." Vid believes Kevin's definition even when their friendship is heavily tested. Even more so, after Kevin offers him work in his mother's house, thereby suggesting an opening into "joining" a family. Vid captures Kevin's character with a few effective descriptions, pointing out the parallels between them: "never look back... Like me, his aim was to escape. Only, he made it look like fun. All the bad things erased." Vid is a contented man, until the recent past catches up with him and Kevin... Later on he muses: "I didn't know what was so funny, until I realized that being treated like one of the family was maybe not always the best thing you could hope for..."
Vid's growing involvement with Kevin's family, the Concannon, brings out deeply held secrets and, without really understanding why, Vid turns into a quiet private eye. In particular, the mystery of a pregnant young unmarried woman's untimely death by drowning, preoccupies him. It happened a couple of generations earlier and the information is scant and only reluctantly given. Interspersing Vid's pursuit of the old story, Hamilton touches on social behaviour patterns, prominent then, yet still reaching into the present of the novel. It is evident that more than an uneasiness remains in the family's actions. Eventually Vid meets the man who can shed more light on the past and who offers him a different kind of friendship.
How can an offer of friendship be more movingly and poetically captured than by the description of a handshake? "...It was asking me to believe him, to trust him, to speak well of him. A handshake of ten verses... His hand contained the entire journey of his life... All the stories and memories, the laughs and triumphs and failures and injustices... A handshake that remained imprinted on my hand long after I had walked back down the street." In him, Vid finally finds a person with whom he can share his own emotional baggage, that he has carried since he fled Serbia, barely alive.
In a recent interview Hugo Hamilton suggested that this novel is for him, in many ways, an extension of his own earlier memoirs. The sensitivity in which he captures Vid's perspective stands out for me. As an immigrant(twice) myself, I relate very personally to the way in which Hamilton illustrates Vid's perspective and his sense of being "in between places, neither here nor there." Among the many fictionalized accounts depicting the lives and struggles of new immigrants, I have not come across any that is so predominantly focused on the new country and the immigrant's reflections as well as his active efforts, despite many obstacles, to fit in: " My problem was not having the language skills to stop things being straightforward, black and white. I was playing the duplicitous game of being myself." A exquisitely crafted novel that, while starting slowly, builds into a dramatic story around diverse and plausible characters and memorable scenarios, sustained by the thoughtful reflection on what it means to start a new life in a foreign country. [Friederike Knabe]