The Jewel, by Neil Hegarty, Head of Zeus, 355 pp, € 14.99, ISBN: 978-1789541816
Neil Hegarty’s second novel opens in 1839 as an artist prepares for her greatest work. The artist, we learn, is Emily Sandbourne, who created colours “as though lit from within” but whose work was neglected by her contemporaries (“the gents didn’t take her seriously”). We meet her as she is purchasing linen on which to produce what will be her final piece. Sandbourne is dying and she means to produce a piece in distemper, whose “colours will sing” and, uniquely for the medium, last. Sandbourne intends to bury the piece with her when she dies, picturing its “shine and swell in the darkness”. Whether the motive was a final rejection of an establishment that never made room for her or an extreme example of art for art’s sake, events turn out slightly differently from she planned. Descendants disinter the grave and the painting ends up held as a “small curiosity” by the National Gallery in Dublin, fashions change as we approach the present day and the painting becomes valued for its “gorgeousness, its utter uniqueness”. Instead of illuming the darkness of the grave, it glows in the minds of the novel’s protagonists – each psychically wounded to a different degree, each with their own relationship (ranging from the criminal to the self-sacrificing) to the painting.
Neil Hegarty is a writer from Derry whose first novel, Inch Levels, dealt profoundly with unspoken histories, and the effect these have on personal and family relationships. In the world of Inch Levels the harms done range from the horrific to the mundane but the suffering endured is due as much to the inability to voice past hurts as to the hurts themselves. That novel covered a lot of ground, encompassing history, politics and the recent conflict with great subtlety. The recurrent bombs, which don’t directly affect the protagonists but which cause their suburban windows to tremble, symbolise the effect of the Troubles on the lives of Hegarty’s narrators. They are also reflective of the novel’s procedures as it depicts trauma rippling through the silence of the characters. An image which appears early in Inch Levels overlaps with the conceit of Hegarty’s current novel; as the central protagonist lies dying in hospital, he thinks:
I should grasp at the chance to find shapes in my life. I should not write a journal, but instead create a wonderful hanging: bright … with coloured thread. And what else? Glittering with rhinestones stitched into the fabric in green and blue and deep and mysterious ruby red: the Bayeux Tapestry de nos jours.
Along with this imagery, The Jewel maintains Hegarty’s preoccupation with what remains unsaid. It seems apt that when we learn first of Sandbourne’s intentions for her creation it is through an after-the-fact, imagined conversation with the shopkeepers from whom she has purchased the linen on which the painting is to be done. There is a lot that remains unspoken in the novel, a lot of silences, a lot of things which can’t be said.
Sandbourne’s work has a profound effect on characters based in contemporary Dublin and London who are drawn into its orbit. Of the three main protagonists, John, who we are introduced to early on as “a painter, counterfeiter, a thief” as he agrees to steal the Sandbourne painting, is perhaps the most central. He is haunted by the death of his father in a childhood which had hitherto involved time spent scribbling with scraps of charcoal and paper by the banks of the Thames. The erasure of his childhood is complete when he and his mother are relocated into a high-rise complex, a regeneration which involves the demolition of John’s childhood neighbourhood. Later, it is the memory of Stella, who leaves him early in their relationship, which haunts him and with whom another of the novel’s imaginary conversations takes place. In the course of this he explains his rationale behind moving from art to forgery and theft: ‘‘Because they owe me … They being the world, the system, the authorities, governments and institutions: a generalised they”. The character of John allows Hegarty the space to muse on the line between art and the counterfeit as we are encouraged to see his successful but formulaic art as all too close to forgery. Where Sandbourne’s final work can be taken as an extreme example of art for art’s sake, the character of John shows how too little artistic integrity carries its own dangers. Once you can keep churning out the same stuff for the same audience, Hegarty implies, you’re not a million miles from forgery, even if the forgery is only of your own work.
If Sandbourne is the pure artist, John the frustrated or fake one, Ward – working for a consultancy which investigates forgery and art theft – must be the critic. Called back to Dublin from his London base to investigate the theft, which the plot moves deftly towards, he comments professionally, if often negatively, on the newly refurbished National Gallery. Hegarty is good with these sorts of contemporaneous details, placing the reader at an exact point in time, without laying it on too thick. On returning to the gallery after years in London, Ward had “grainy memories of certain paintings hung in certain rooms, long ago, but all of this was now swept away”. Elsewhere, the character of Ward’s London boss is summed up with reference to Brexit: “Charlotte had voted Leave, and had been brazen about the fact. And Ward had to work with her.” While John’s background is detailed at an early stage in the narrative, Hegarty does not reveal the details of Ward’s childhood – central to which is an abusive father – until late in the novel. This allows the prose to dwell instead on Ward’s relationship with Martin, his domineering and abusive partner. However, it is telling that on a first reading, we realise that Ward’s early history will be revealed. Neil Hegarty has constructed the plot of this novel with such precision and symmetry that the reader often feels that they know what elements lie in wait (if not, necessarily, what they will contain).
In the case of Roisin, the “Keeper of Displays” at the National Gallery, her life revolves around her profession. “The art is the thing”, she states repeatedly, indicating the contours within which her life operates. She too has been touched by dark events in childhood: events which, it is implied, have led to her life’s constrained focus. Roisin has left a position at the Tate and moved to Dublin, taking up her new position during the gallery’s closure for refurbishment. She felt the gallery was “better off closed”, its “paintings sequestered from the roving gaze of those punters who, more likely than not, didn’t appreciate or understand what they were looking at”. The gallery’s closure, for her, is “its natural state” and this leads her to provide a pithy self-portrait: “An art gallery closed to the public, a completely controlled space, a gallery bespoke, for her. There could be no better place in the world.” Roisin is a perfectly crafted character, with her extremely guarded and isolated life credibly balanced by her enthusiasms. However, the formative event in her history – her teenage sister found dying by the side of a grotto after attempting a self-abortion – re-enacts a scene which, by this stage, is in danger of being reduced to merely literary shorthand for wide-scale societal problems. Hegarty has already shown us that he has no need of such devices: his portrayal of Roisin’s family perfectly captures the feeling of authoritarianism, lightly suppressed violence and a sense of bleakness that is specific to a time and place. The mica that glitters in the surrounding landscape, and which sparkles for Roisin and her sister Maeve on a particularly idyllic afternoon, also contaminates the granite of the family home. This will eventually cause the house to crumble and the inevitability of this adds to Roisin’s mother’s sense of entrapment and despair while fuelling her father, Cormac’s, underlying rage. (This imagery of a watery, crumbling building is also utilised in the depiction of a family farm, the childhood home of Sarah, in Inch Levels: another home associated with patriarchy and violence.) Hegarty links the outwardly glittering mica to a statue of the Virgin Mary in Maeve’s school; the cracks run deep. With a magnificently delicate touch Neil Hegarty has conflated patriarchy, religion, violence and family in a manner that is both exactingly specific and utterly convincing. Deftly, this image of the mica sinisterly reflects the painting of “The Jewel”, also glimmering in the darkness.
The three main protagonists each have a symbolic function in relation to the artwork at the novel’s core (as artist/thief, guardian and critic). They each have a devastating childhood history. All is far from perfect in their current lives: John has the malign influence of Etienne, Ward suffers the subtle abuse of Martin, Roisin attempts a life divorced from others. While there is an element of the formulaic to this, Hegarty displays great dexterity in his handling of the plot. Throughout the novel Hegarty juggles characters and eras, with a particularly effective handling of the episode that the plot has been edging towards: the actual theft of the painting. Hegarty re-tells this scene, from a subtle variety of standpoints, to strikingly visual and almost cinematic effect. It’s a technique which he has already used to good effect in his first novel; here the effect is gripping.
While The Jewel may not have quite the same lyrical pathos of Hegarty’s first novel this is not to downplay the author’s skilful and frequently evocative powers of description. The Jewel also displays a fine ear for dialogue, along with a good eye for the workings of relationships, especially when things go awry. Hegarty handles a range of dialogue convincingly, be it between the class-differentiated couple of John and Stella, or the constant verbal assaults of Martin on Ward. It’s welcome to find a novel where such a broad range of dialogue is handled so adeptly. The Jewel is an artfully constructed novel: perhaps overly so: the symmetry is such that at times I found myself wishing for a digression that didn’t lead onto the expected road, or resolutions that weren’t so conveniently and neatly made. But the descriptive language here is often lyrically exact, Hegarty’s perceptions acute, and the novel’s construction propels the reader along. In the novel’s final stages, shortly before the theft of the painting, a member of the gallery’s staff gives a detailed talk on ‘The Jewel’:
the shining light and the darkness, at the slash of the pauldron, and the glimmering lamps, brightness and darkness against jet … A beautiful combination of darkness and light.
In a nice touch, in a novel where so much is explained and so much is resolved, the painting which glimmers throughout is never fully described and so remains, for the reader, glowing and ambiguous.
Ross Moore lives and works in Belfast. He writes occasional articles and reviews on contemporary literature