Neil Hegarty’s new novel, The Jewel, is a mass of contradictions. It’s about an art heist, but it’s not fun. It’s a love story, but it’s not romantic. And it features a woman’s wasted life, but it’s not without salvation. The overarching plot follows three characters. John, a ‘seedy’ artist-cum-art-forger-cum-art-thief, has been commissioned to steal an important work (‘The Jewel’ of the title) from a newly re-opened gallery in Dublin. As he prepares for the job, he reflects on his life, from his lonely, suburban childhood by the Thames, scouting for washed-up dogs on the foreshore, to his early twenties at art school, living in a bedsit smelling of gas and in love with a worldly blonde.
Roisin works at the gallery, responsible for choosing paint colours for the walls. She grew up in Ireland, went to a convent school, and lost a sister to a botched abortion in her early teens. This, and an unrequited crush at university, has haunted her ever since, keeping her aloof from the world and from love. Ward is a member of an arcane organisation that helps to track down stolen art, and is stuck in an abusive relationship with his partner, Martin. So well-realised is this destructive alliance that I worried about Hegarty’s own love life. The instances of negging are so subtle that, as in real life, it is difficult to pick them out: a mocking lisp here (or is it friendly teasing?); a cold silence there (or is he just brooding?).
Hegarty is adept at conjuring the texture of relationships in this way. Roisin remembers an afternoon she spent with her sister on a childhood holiday when they basked in a sun-drenched field with a friendly donkey: the memory comes to stand for her sister’s lost innocence. John broods on his love affair with the glamorous Stella; a short fling, really, but it seems to have been the happiest time of his life, full of pathos and yearning and the chance — now lost — to have made something better of himself. Ward notes of a colleague that ‘she had voted Leave, and had been brazen about the fact’: how well this sums up that particular divide. The plot, as these three lives elide, is very much secondary to their particular histories and quirks. Hegarty has created a strange, unsettling novel that is, in its quiet way, a jewel.