Hangover Square is a book I've always meant to read, but until now, have never got round to doing so. Thank heaven I have! For this is that rare literary specimen: a novel in which you really can believe the hype.
George Edward Bone is a well meaning, jovial type of chap, educated, with a small yet ever decreasing private income. His days are spent, like most of Mr Hamilton's characters, drinking whatever he can in some of London's more seedier public houses.
Part of a circle dominated by the beautiful Netta - an aspiring actress - George worships a lady whose total indifference to him, makes her the kind of cruel mistress that Shakespeare and co. knew all too well.
A tale of infatuation unfolds. The lady is out of reach, a good time girl quite willing to sell herself to the highest bidder. In the meantime George has his uses. In Hangover Square Hamilton tells a quite harrowing story of how the strong exploit the weak, of how desire can lead a man to insanity. For George wants Netta, very, very badly. Desire is an addiction, so is alcohol. Neither can be overcome.
Anti-hero George Bone is at once a frustrating yet vulnerable man. Unable to let Netta go, he clings to her for dear life, suffering nothing but ridicule and abuse from the lady and her cronies. The more he tries to appease the gang, the fouler the abuse, the more vitriolic the remarks. And yet George still can't let go. As a reader you want to scream at him: "Let her go!" Even though you know to do so would be pointless. George is a 'nice' guy. Thus he is ripe for exploitation.
Hamilton invests George with something he calls his 'dull' moods. Inexplicably, our hero occasionally goes into a kind of trance - signalled by a 'click' - which can last hours, days and from which when he eventually emerges, he is unable to remember a thing. In these moods, this George Bone becomes a different person altogether, a man hell bent on violence, hell bent on killing the object of his torture., hell bent on murdering the unobtainable Netta. Jekyll and Hyde.
But will George finally snap? Will he finally put an end to his misery? Will he finally do away with Netta? As a reader, such is the petulant, arrogant, heartless woman Hamilton creates in Netta, you find yourself hoping he will do just that.
First there are trips to Brighton, where George hopes to persuade Netta of his love but where his hopes and dreams come crashing down. Was ever a man so disdained? Netta Longdon might be beautiful on the outside, but the inside is darker than the crypt.
Hangover Square is a tense affair alright. Hamilton certainly knows how to draw the reader into his web. The only weakness is the ending, which as ever with Hamilton, smacks a little bit of contrivance, if only briefly. George's temporary triumph as he fleetingly rubs shoulders with the good and the great does feel a little forced.
There has always been something inevitable about how Hangover Square will end. Still, that doesn't dilute the impact of a work that has the power to shock a contemporary audience just as much as it did in 1941 or any other year for that matter.
So I finally did it. I got round to reading Hangover Square. And I'm glad I did. Hamilton's world of smoky pubs, cruel mistresses and seaside escapades under the shadow of encroaching war might be the stuff of nightmares, but by Jasper it's a world you'll never want to leave.