It was a noise inside his head, and yet it was not a noise. It was the sound which a noise makes when it abruptly ceases: it had a temporary deafening effect. It was as though one had blown one’s nose too hard and the outer world had suddenly become dim and dead. And yet he was not physically deaf: it was merely that in this physical way alone could he think of what had happened in his head.
This confusion, disjunction and disorientation serves as a framework for the novel as a whole. George has fallen in with a bad crowd, and spends his days getting drunk in various Earl’s Court pubs with a variety of shady characters in an effort to impress the beautiful, cold-hearted, slatternly Netta. But Netta is only interested in George for his money (of which he has very little, but more than the rest), his tenuous connections to an acting agency, and the opportunity to use him as dogsbody. The novel’s action is a litany of tiny acts of humiliation, all at ‘poor Bone’s expense. Little does she know that in his ‘dumb moods’, as these fugue states are termed by the gang, George’s sole impulse is to free himself of Netta – by killing her.
Participating so closely in George’s consciousness, we can’t help but desire Netta’s death, too, sharing his desperate idea that if she could only be got rid of, George could leave and go to Maidenhead – the childhood town he holds up as a talisman of better times. Hangover Square toys with our ideas of a thriller, and of a villain. It is also held up as a classic ‘pre-WWII’ novel, capturing the essence of the tension and bleakness of the months leading up to war in 1939. Various characters flirt with fascism including Netta (who is aesthetically attracted to it more than anything else – and in that she has some interesting parallels with Jean Brodie) and her occasional lover Peter. But it is not a schematic metaphor for the failures of appeasement and the advent of war. Whatever George does, whether he follows the path of peacefulness and submission, or violence and anger, he is damned. Maidenhead is a lost idyll, an unattainable ideal, that George will never be able to return to.
It is a hard read, often unpleasant, but it is not the hopeless dirge a novel with this kind of story could so easily have become. The writing is fantastic, atmospheric and encourages you to keep working at the character: one chapter ends ‘He felt his way down the stairs – slowly, staggeringly, blackly, cleverly.’ I’ve heard varied accounts of how realistic a portrayal of schizophrenia or split personality disorder Hamilton manages, but I found it singularly realistic in its warped logic and fixation.
What also struck me about is how relevant (is that a horrible turn of phrase?) this book remains to the London of today? Earl’s Court is perhaps not the den of iniquity it once was, thanks mostly to its notorious conference centre that just means that lost-looking tourists are constantly clogging up its incredibly confusing tube station, but this vision of a no-man’s land of a lost, unemployed underclass trying to get on with their lives in the shadow of an impending war certainly rings true in 2012. With the UK’s shocking levels of unemployment, its withdrawal of state support (particularly in areas of mental health) under the guise of Big Society, and the government’s struggle to create a coherent identity for Britain – Olympic good-time city, financial capital, cracking-down on corruption with Leveson while turning a blind eye to the never-ending banking crisis – it seems to have plenty of say about the country’s split personality 70 years on, and the pressures it places on a still unacknowledged, downtrodden section of society.