The Hypocrite by Jo Hamya review – sharp generational shame game

Among an author’s most dreaded readers, their parents rank perhaps most highly. Megan Nolan once stated that her main fear is not “scornful strangers” but “subjecting” her parents to her fiction; while RO Kwon insists she would keep her books away “from all kin” if she could. In Jo Hamya’s well-aimed second novel, The Hypocrite, a young woman’s writing broaches decades-old conversations that push her family relationships to ruin’s edge. At its centre, a chauvinistic, middle-aged male novelist is publicly lampooned by his own daughter.

The work in question – a play by 27-year-old Sophia – revisits a trip with her father to a family friend’s holiday home in Sicily’s Aeolian Islands. The father attends a matinee performance (fatefully ignorant of its subject) and the novel slips back and forth between his account of this experience and a tense lunch in which Sophia and her mother dredge up marital resentments and their various recollections of the events portrayed in the play. Through this roving narration, Hamya gently teases out chasms and contradictions between each character’s memories.

Since her parents are long divorced, “gaps in contact” are a recurring theme in Sophia and her father’s relationship. The Italian sojourn is the longest they have spent together, but is overshadowed by the fact that the well-known “polemicist” is on a deadline. While he dictates, the teen is tasked with typing up his latest draft. The pair become like “surgeons trading swabs and scalpels in a theatre”. Sophia, though, feels increasingly stultified, not helped by her father’s series of liaisons with “strange women” she overhears in the dead of night.

It’s these bawdy encounters that are excruciatingly laid bare in Sophia’s satire. They ensue “like an enactment of the criticisms” previously levelled at her father’s ouevre while he shifts uncomfortably in the stalls, mind whirring (“Has Sophia heard him come?” he wonders at one point. “He listens to the actor do it and decides, evidently not”). Meanwhile, Sophia is delusional about the distance she has maintained between her work and reality. She insists the play has “nothing to do” with her father – despite the lead actor wearing a damningly identical purple paisley shirt to one in his wardrobe.

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With this artful construct, Hamya sets the stage for generational gripes and grudges to run riot. Sophia is frustrated at her father’s supposed misogyny; her father at her generation’s supposed lack of humour. The former is also not unimpeachable, enjoying a fairly cushy existence in north London, guilty of a “smug, obvious white feminism”, and lacerating her play’s female characters as much as she punishes her father.

Hamya is exacting in her use of flint-sharp images, from a bottom lip prepared “for conflict” to “kneecaps of rock” and “maracas of pebbles being disturbed”. There is also a precision in her approach to the novel’s – as well as the play’s – ploys. The Hypocrite takes aim not only at its characters but at art itself, cautioning that fiction dubiously uses and reduces its characters to “devices” and allegories.

This meticulousness is also Hamya’s weakness. Her characters sometimes feel calculatedly flawed, not quite flesh and blood. As symbols of their respective demographics, the equally dislikable Sophie and her father offer a narrow view of both generations. More astute is the rendering of a young woman caught in the crosshairs of her parents’ 20-year-old divorce. Like her debut, Three Rooms, Hamya’s latest possesses a poised, almost guarded self-awareness, but when her writing strays into more emotional territory it really shines.

The Hypocrite by Jo Hamya is published by Orion (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

The Guardian

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