With some books it takes only a couple of pages to be reminded of the sheer number of talents a writer must combine to create a great novel. So it is with The Parts, in which Keith Ridgway must assume not only the role of a stylish choreographer to a diverse cast of characters and cartographer of the sprawling, seething streets of Dublin but also an assured curator of its inhabitants’ stories. Cynical yet impassioned, dry yet lyrical, The Parts emerges as a taut modern thriller and a blazon to a city.
At first the greatest menace facing the characters (‘a million kittens in a sack, down by the river’) appears to be the city itself. As the novel progresses, however, the dangers become more specific and sinister: important letters appear to have vanished, and a rent-boy is confronted by a violent client while across the city a doctor seems poised for his patient, an heiress, to die. The fractured, multi-voiced narrative structure means the book flips from one character’s perspective to another and the reader must quickly turn detective in order to keep track of the ways in which their experiences converge.
Of these characters, radio-show host Joe Kavanagh – hurt and bullish – is proving a headache for long-suffering producer Barry, himself negotiating a claustrophobic gay scene and fearful of losing any sense of his identity (‘the potential was turning sour, and he awaited the inevitable with a kind of terrified resignation’). On the outskirts of town one encounters fragile, moneyed Delly, a woman with a harrowing secret who is nursed by a quiet American doctor and the gloriously stodgy, irascible Kitty. As each of their narrative threads loop and braid around one another it is the story of rent-boy Kez, an observer of the city and its processes (‘One brain membrane; one simple, basic, entry level telepathy… You know everyone. You just don’t know you do’), who links the disparate characters. As his safety becomes compromised, the novel twists and ricochets into a race against time, with mysteries uncovered and lives unravelled, Ridgway succeeds in keeping each of the novel’s characters so distinct and compelling that, as they cross each other’s paths and boundaries, the rising tension never slackens.
Perhaps the novel’s greatest triumph is the way in which the essential loneliness that courses through city living – however thronging and clamorous the city itself might be – is all conveyed with a light touch. Indeed, the book features moments of wonderful absurdity and human crisis that are deeply funny. For example, a stash of hardcore pornography explodes, causing all concerned to ‘tiptoe their way through the orgy, across the pond’. Events are also buoyed along by a tricksiness and trilling use of language – one particularly deft description sums up the similarity and differences between two characters in comparing the way they listen to one another to ‘the way a banjo must listen to a violin’. Achieving a perfect balance of urgency and flippancy throughout, The Parts bucks along at a pace that belies its complexity.
Scattered amongst the text are fragments of letters, written lists, text messages, memoranda and voice-mail transcripts. This scrapbooking technique, set alongside the interweaved voices of the characters, allows Ridgway to present a community as well as individual identities as a brilliant mosaic. Startling, delightful and disturbing by degrees, just as one character hesitatingly attempts to describe ‘static’ (‘“It’s uh, electricity, not flowing. Not in a current. Just, you know, around. It builds up…”’), The Parts fizzes with a mounting force that captivates the reader right until its conclusion.