Image of Hourglass
Release Date: 
February 14, 2023
Europa Editions
Reviewed by: 

“Like in the best comedy, Goddard disguises some of our deepest and hardest truths in jokes that make us both laugh and then . . . ask ourselves how we could possibly have found humor in such misery.”

Reading Keiran Goddard’s Hourglass is like reading a love letter from a fraught, anxious individual who recognizes his own flaws, yet simultaneously resists any and all attempts at self-improvement. He is “not entirely surprised” when a woman (not the recipient of the letter) tells him that living with him “is like living with the sad ghost of a failed comedian.”

Reading this book feels like that, too, but in a good way.

Through sharp, self-deprecating prose, Goddard has created an unraveling love story between the narrative “I” and the implied “you” (a role the reader is invited to try on). When he tells us of his flat jokes and wildly inappropriate observations, we cringe. Yet when those jokes and observations are given directly to us—or you, his lover—we laugh. In the present tense, the narrator is incredibly humorous.

That sad ghost haunts the narrative, however, and offers up much more than cringe-worthy exchanges. Through that ghost, we explore God (and God’s absence), children (as a source of renewal and repair), cruelty (and the role it plays in love), and much more.

This love letter is one of recollection and the re-creation of memory. As neurologists have theorized, memory is far from exacting, and every time we recall something, we actually rewrite it. Goddard runs with this notion. In homage to the title, there are echoes upon echoes within this short novel, heard in a slightly different tone each time they reappear, an unsettling and rather addicting déjà vu.

Everything is slippery, even the narrator’s self-loathing. He regularly describes himself as fat and balding, though others seem to find him attractive. Maybe he has let himself go, which is part of what makes “you” leave, but maybe his sadness is the source of your waning attraction, or his lack of direction and purpose, or his relationship with his mother.

Because—in addition to being a love story between you and the narrator—this is also a mother-son story, a reversed Oedipal-complex where the narrator casts his mother in a damaging and shameful light. Of the first meeting between you and his mother, the narrator says he is “scared you will see something in her that will make you hate me.” You tell him he worries too much—particularly about his mother—but the narrator can’t shake that worry, and we’re not entirely sure he should.

His mother is the type of woman who once told her son that the noise in a café where he’d taken her felt like “someone was spitting actual shit in her ear,” who thinks “the only people who actually need mobile phones are pimps and plumbers.” She was regularly “ill” in the narrator’s childhood, an illness that started with incessant vacuuming, followed by incessant jigsaw-puzzling, followed by long stretches of time in bed.

The narrator resembles his mother more than he cares to admit, and arc of their story is as ugly as it is heart-wrenching.

He wants so much to be close to people—that yearning is palpable—yet true intimacy would require the narrator to change. He reads the four books you wrote about Restoration drama because he wanted “to look for you in them,” yet he’s incapable of truly seeing you in front of him. He writes witty (and cringy) essays with long, obscure titles, but he walks through his life in a detached fog—and he knows it:

“I felt like a bonfire that had been put together by someone who was in a rush and who was also stupid.

“As if they had put bits of rubbish in with the sticks and the sticks weren’t even arranged properly.

“I was the type of bonfire that burned weirdly and too fast and then someone would have to ask what the smell was and why the smoke was such a strange colour.”

Like the sad ghost of a failed comedian, it’s a brilliant metaphor for this narrator and his life. There’s beauty in that haphazard fire, in its foul odor and smoke. Like in the best comedy, Goddard disguises some of our deepest and hardest truths in jokes that make us both laugh and then—maybe hours or days or even years later—ask ourselves how we could possibly have found humor in such misery.