Tobias Hill, ‘Underground’

It turns out that working ten- and eleven-hour days is conducive to neither reading nor writing about what you read. The next few entries are therefore going to be a bit of a scamper through the library books I’ve renewed umpteen times since December and have finally got through, plus one book I read on the way – this one.

Underground‘Underground’ is eerie, and gripping. Casimir is a Tube worker, spending his life in the depths of the London Underground. When a young woman dies under a train, Casimir is drawn into hunting for her killer, trying to identify one person among the hordes who pass him by every day.

Interwoven is the story of Casimir’s childhood in Poland, slowly discovering the family secrets which would shape his adult life. The pacing is perfect, flipping you effortlessly between the narratives and never losing the tension. Both sequences are told in the present tense, sharp and immediate. The child Casimir narrates his own story, and the world he sees is very much a child’s world. Tobias Hill is a poet as well as a novelist, and it shows in the vividness of the language and the detailed observational eye which can create a whole person in just a few sentences.

It took me a while to work out why the two halves of the story mesh so well, until I realised that both the child Casimir and the adult are observers, standing apart, both searching for an explanation. The child doesn’t understand his mother and father and the tensions of their relationship, and exists in two worlds: the world of children’s rules and the world of incomprehensible adults. The adult is literally adrift in a foreign country, but is one step further detached by the nature of his job, watching the people stream by every day and then stepping through doors and into tunnels and hideaways that they will never know. It’s only when Casimir begins to meet the people who make their home in a secret, dark otherworld, beyond even the passageways of his working life, that he is able to make any connection with another human being.

‘Underground’ was Hill’s debut novel, published in 1999. I will definitely be looking out for his other work.


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