I was gifted this book by my mother, so I feel terrible for what I am about to say about it. It was gifted with the best of intentions: someone or other famous reported that it made them feel at home in London, a city I love. But a city that can feel indifferent to you. This book did not make me feel at home in this city. It showed how it is possible for a place to be the centre of art, politics, ambition and still allow anyone to shift un-affixed through their life.
Credit where it’s due: Hamilton captures this mood so well in Hangover Square, a book set in London in the winter of 1938. Written between 1939-1941, just as the Second World War loomed and then broke, the backdrop is bleak, and various characters’ enthusiasm for the Nazi regime isn’t particularly endearing.
This is a bleak book. There is little in it to broadcast hope. We get a few weak flashes, but we know well enough that they’re faltering and won’t last the evening. Let alone the night. This is thanks to our hapless protagonist, George Harvey Bone: a man who seems rarely to have his own self interest at heart. A man who is in hapless love with Netta, a sometimes actress but always cruel woman who uses Bone for nothing more than social leverage and free drinks.
The drudgery of unrequited love apparently runs in Hamilton’s other works, namely Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky. He writes it incredibly well. Though I am largely unsympathetic to Bone, Hamilton draws out the sympathy, even when you’re pretty stone-cold on the same narrative arc repeating itself for the fourth-or-fifth time in the book.
Netta strings Bone, along with her two other drinking companions (and sometimes lovers) Micky and Peter through the pubs of Euston. Gin and beer and sandwiches appear cycle through this book. Unsurprisingly, Hamilton himself was a drunk. A lonely drunk. But golly can he write.
This complete haplessness and lack of control over his whole life makes the book drag. There is little to no change in narrative style or characters throughout the book. We’re introduced to Bone’s “dead moods”, what we might now recognise as schizophrenic or psychotic/depersonalisation episodes. Times when the illusion of self and consciousness are completely freed from him, and he is overwhelmed by a desire to kill Netta.
But these are never explored. He’s had dead moods for his entire life, but he’s not known Netta his entire life. Are they an expression of things he truly wants, or some perfect negative of his “normal” self? We’re never given any hint of an answer.
At no point do you believe that Bone actually will change, or wants to change. He has no mastery of himself, he is subject to the abandonment of others. Romantically and platonically, people leave Bone. It’s sad, but also I have no sense of who Bone was. He’s taken advantage of by those around him, they see him as nothing more than the taxi fares and gin bottles he can buy. And they’re not wrong. They’re obviously callous and unkind and taking advantage, but… what else is Bone? Our poetic narrator.
If nothing else, read sections of the book, just for the language. It is singularly the largest redeeming feature, making this book worth the (literally groan-inducing) effort that it took from me at other times. It reads as though freshly graduated from the school of Dickens, though with the bone-tired-from-the-effort-of-alcoholism that can’t be bought at eighteen years old. A mature student of the Dickensian school, then.
I’m unsure if the prose capture the 1940s accurately, or instead a few decades before. I’m not familiar with literature of the time. The little interactions between characters, or our narrators internal monologue all shine. Simply worth reading. Hamilton was a talented writer, and though I’ll gladly turn my nose up at his choice of subject, the way he wrote it was good.
Read it, but don’t expect to be drawn in. 2.5 ⭐