Most of us who read regularly have books that are on our radar for a while before we get to them. A casual reference somewhere, a review that sounded promising, having a look in a bookshop (tactile or electronic). As someone who not only reads a lot, but is always on the look-out for reading suggestions, I constantly have a bunch of books on a mental list that I mean to read sometime soon. (This is in addition to the bunch of books I have sitting on the bookshelf next to my bed that I mean to read sometime...)
Patrick Hamilton's 1941 novel Hangover Square: A story of darkest Earl's Court was one such book. As often happens with these things, I can't put my finger on where or from whom I got the idea that I should read it, but over the last couple of days, I finally have. Sometimes these long-intended books are ultimately disappointments, or simply underwhelming. Hangover Square was neither: it is a compelling, involving, even moving book.
George Harvey Bone lives in London, in 1939. He scrapes by with bits of money from here & there, rarely working, but often drinking. He has fallen in with a small group of similar people - all in their late-20s-early-30s, and all of whom enjoy drinking their nights away. Central to this group, and George's reason for sticking with them, is the beautiful Netta. George is somewhat slow, friendlier than most of his group; Netta is contemptuous, an aspiring film star. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. But George is also prone to what he calls 'dead moments', where his genial, somewhat passive, personality is replaced by one in which he realises that it is his duty to kill Netta. When his head clickes back to normal after one of these periods, he has no memory of any of these thoughts. (None of this, I should point out, is spoiler: Penguin included it in their blurb, and indeed we learn all this in the first chapter regardless.)
Hangover Square is thus a portrait of two different sides of George, neither of which is fully aware of the other. It succeeds because both work: the straightforward George chapters are a moving story about a hapless fool infatuated with an awful woman (& make no mistake: Netta is one of the least-likeable characters I have ever encountered in fiction - she treats George appallingly, taking advantage of his doglike devotion to get him to pay for her to do things intended to attract other men, and not even stooping to basic civility in her relationship with him while doing so), and also trying to break out of wasting his life away via his drinking habit. The 'dead moment' chapters give a compelling feel to a clear case of mental illness, a man who is driven to kill someone, without really knowing why. That both sections are about the same man only heightens the tension.
In many ways, Hamilton has written a thoroughly modern novel - one that, with a few alterations of period detail, could have been published in the last few years. (Early on, characters treat ten pounds as a significant chunk of money, and are able to go out several nights in a row, including once to a high-class restaurant, off the haul. The imminent WWII looms over the book & characters, particularly in the last few chapters.) George, when not in his dead moments, is sympathetic despite his frustrating incapacity to ditch Netta. Hangover Square is often grim, and it will be the rare reader who finds Netta anything other than utterly despicable, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am glad I finally got around to reading it.