A Shock by Keith Ridgway review – life behind London’s twitching curtains

Picture a novel about contemporary London and perhaps the kind of book that comes to mind is a plot-driven panorama along the lines of John Lanchester’s Capital. One suspects that nothing lay further from Keith Ridgway’s thoughts as he cooked up this shattered series of surreal and sinisterly comic south London scenes, peopled by a shadowy cast of characters who wander haphazardly in and out of view.

The loosely linked episodes often turn on spying or sneaking around. A senile widow examines a dent in her wall only to end up inside it, watching next door’s kitchen through the gap. A builder’s assistant, left without his phone after being locked in a client’s house, decides his best bet is to hide out in the attic. In The Flat, a mysteriously indistinct narratorial “we” observes a new tenant masturbating after he stumbles upon a folder stuffed with explicit photos of his flat’s former residents.

Shifting between a range of styles and perspectives, the minimally signposted narration, twinned with Ridgway’s delicious ear for dialogue, lends a voyeuristic quality to much of A Shock, as if we’re somehow present where we shouldn’t be. Real-world travails (money troubles, HR disputes) buttress the more bizarre goings-on, with Britain’s pre-election political climate pointedly evoked: someone organising a Labour meeting in a pub buttonholes a drinker he wrongly assumes to be Jewish: “Given the situation, it would be good to have more Jews really, locally, involved.”

Where Ridgway’s last novel, Hawthorn & Child, injected the police-procedural genre with a bracing dose of weirdness, A Shock likewise puts a shot in the arm of the archetypal London novel. But if Hawthorn & Child toyed with expectations of what crime fiction usually looks like – witness the reassuring presence of the titular detective duo – the new book more or less floats free from expectations of any kind, which makes for pretty gnomic reading. “Nobody knows… Nobody knows,” someone says when they’re asked the time while riding an Uber at the close of a blurry sequence involving a group of men hooking up for drug-enhanced sex.

One of the best segments, The Camera, offers a subtle portrait of an uneasy friendship between two former schoolmates, Stan and Gary, now in their 20s. When Gary starts photographing Stan unawares and posting him the results without answering Stan’s texts and calls, Stan decides that “the photographs, and Gary’s silence, seemed to amount to something. He had a vague and… inarticulable idea that they constituted a challenge.” While the ensuing confrontation seems to reveal the racist assumptions that Stan (who is white) holds about his friend (who is black), the episode won’t resolve itself so neatly, not least because the book’s prior strangeness has already put us on guard; it’s hard not to feel that Stan’s take on Gary’s pictures might better describe A Shock itself.

As for what it all amounts to, well, look to the title: it may be the one thing this endlessly interesting novel actually spells out.

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