Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, first published in 1941, is deservedly being re-discovered as a perceptive portrayal of people getting-by, living in the low rent district of Earls Court, London, months before war is declared. It is the mournful tale of one man’s hopeless love for a woman who exploits him relentlessly, his inability to see her for what she is, and the battle of his psyche, half of which is telling him to commit murder.
George Harvey Bone loves Netta Longdon despite, or perhaps because of, her disdain for him. ‘When she had finished making up, she went into the sitting room to change her shoes, and he followed her. He was always following her, like her shadow, like a dog.’ This is a novel about love, about living on the edge, and schizophrenia, and about the underbelly of a city paused on the brink of war.
The story flicks back and forth in George’s head between his lucid moments planning a new life in Maidenhead when he will stop drinking, and what happens after the ‘click’ in his head – a blackout or loss of sense of time and place – when he realizes the only solution is to kill Netta. George is put-upon by Netta and her circle of friends, he buys drinks, brings food, and they tolerate his company only when he can contribute something. Netta goes to Brighton with George, not to be with him but because she hopes he can introduce her to someone useful. George, bless him, fails to see this. ‘She was wildly, wildly, lovely that night. He looked across the table at her, and she was violets and primroses again.’ Netta and her heartless group of friends exploit George mercilessly and he allows them to do it.
Hamilton’s Earls Court is a seedy place where people get-by on little money, living in rented rooms or boarding houses, scrounging off others, seemingly without jobs to go to. Netta goes to bed in the small hours, rises at eleven in the morning with a hangover – the Hangover Square of the title – then navigates her day via pubs, bars and restaurants or drinking from a bottle of gin provided by a friend. Brighton – London-by-the-Sea – brings a breath of fresh air but, as is always the way, George’s problems follow him there. There is a lovely section when he plays golf, a successful round which gives him the confidence to woo Netta. ‘He wasn’t going to get drunk. She could drink if she wanted to, but he wasn’t going to – at least only a little. He was going to keep his head.’ The irony, of course, is that George is schizophrenic and has another psychotic episode.
This novel is very funny in places, in others the action can seem slow to progress, but I found myself willing George to tell Netta where to go. He is the sort of character you want to take by the hand. Of course, he is unable to stand up to Netta’s rude and ungrateful behaviour and it is the uncertainty of what he will do, where he will go, and whether his schizophrenic murder plans will come to fruition, which made this such an absorbing read.
‘Hangover Square’ by Patrick Hamilton [UK: Abacus]
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