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Andrew Michael Hurley is something of a genius in how he amps up the creep-factor in his writing about isolated rural traditions and village secrets. His phenomenally-successful novel “The Loney” was certainly one of the most atmospheric novels I read last year. New novel “Devil's Day” also produces that unsettling feeling which makes you fearfully look over your shoulder late at night. The narrative artfully plays upon superstitions and anxiety to draw the reader in. John returns to the remote Lancashire sheep-farming community he was raised in for the funeral of his grandfather “The Gaffer” and the annual local Devil's Day celebration. This is a ceremony where the devil is at first tempted in to spare him ravaging the sheep and then expelled back out into the barren moors. Meanwhile, John's pregnant wife Katherine is frequently bothered by a persistent rotting smell, there's a sick ram in the barn, local girl Grace exhibits psychic powers, an act of arson burns a large plot of land and a father recently released from jail has gone missing. This accumulation of details all build to make the reader frantically wonder what's really happening. Is there something supernatural about this environment or are these bizarre occurrences merely messing with our perception? The story builds to fantastically tense scenes and an eerily climatic ending.

This wouldn't be possible if it weren't for Hurley's talent for suffusing his story with a rich amount of detail. The landscape is magnificently described and the intricacies of farming life are vividly rendered. There's a certain beauty to this age-worn setting and its proud community, but there's a sense of ever-present dilapidation to it as well: “Living on farms was one endless round of maintenance. Nothing was ever finished. Nothing was ever settled. Nothing. Everyone here died in the midst of repairing something. Chores and damage were inherited.” The author describes the physically-taxing nature of farming life and how little profit there is in it. He also renders how this creates a long-lasting effect on people over time: '“The valley made placid men stubborn, just as it made ageing men older.” Hence, it's little wonder that John was drawn to move away and make a life for himself elsewhere. But his return to his homeland makes him to reconsider his family legacy and whether he should continue established traditions.

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The thing which elevates this novel into being something other than a finely-rendered spooky story are the heartfelt questions about family life that it raises. Are we obligated to honour our ancestors by carrying on with their work or are we free to set out on our own? This is played out through John's narrative but his story which sifts between the past and present comes with hitches which gradually make us question his motives, viability and certain facts about his personal history. There are beautifully poignant moments when he considers how few details we can actually recall in our memories: “Like salt boiled out of water, these things remain. Everything else has evaporated.” We can draw multiple conclusions out of the fragments we get from John's past and the ending of the story. Like all the best riveting narratives whose exact meaning remains elusive, this novel has left me wanting to discuss it with other people so we can collectively try to tease out an answer for what really happened.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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This novel is one of those rare great success stories in that it was first published in 2014 by a small press as a limited edition before being picked up by a much bigger publisher. When it was published by John Murray last year it received a wide amount of critical acclaim and won both the Costa Book Awards First Novel Award and the British Book Industry award for best debut fiction. Such a book comes with a lot of expectations and I was delighted to find “The Loney” lives up to them. Set in a bleak strip of coastline in the north west of England in the 1970s, it’s the story of two brothers who accompany their parents and members of their parish on a pilgrimage one Easter. Andrew Michael Hurley so skilfully builds a sense of a tense, gloomy atmosphere and creates suspense that I felt wholly gripped and wanted to understand the mystery of what happened during this trip. As well as being a satisfying gothic thriller, the novel raises compelling questions about faith, life's meaning and family.  

The novel is narrated by one of the brothers from a point in the far future. He recalls the pilgrimage of that Easter in the 1970s and wants to record what happened because a body has recently been found in the area that they visited. He feels a fierce sense of protection over his brother who he nicknames Hanny. As boys they were incredibly close because Hanny was mute up until that Easter and they shared a special communication. It's really tender and moving the way that Hurley portrays this where the meaning of a gesture or sign from Hanny is instantly understood by his brother as they've developed their own unique sign language. However, the boys' mother Esther (who the narrator refers to as Mummer) is determined to cure Hanny's muteness by appealing to God and puts him through a series of ardent prayers and rituals to cure him.

Their family belongs to a devotedly faithful Catholic parish which was once overseen by an extremely strict and pious man named Father Wilfred. The narrator recalls how sadistic he could be disciplining the boys, yet he's also eventually portrayed as a complex and sympathetically troubled man. Before their pilgrimage during that particular Easter Father Wilfred dies and he's replaced by a much younger and more liberal man Father Bernard McGill from Belfast. Where Father Wilfred advocated for absolute truth and confession, Father Bernard understands that “the truth isn’t always set in stone. In fact it never is. There are just versions of it. And sometimes it’s prudent to be selective about the version you choose to give to people.” Mummer and Father Bernard gradually clash in a fascinating way as she wishes him to use a more strictly enforced regiment for practicing faith. Out of this tension and the strange things happening amongst the local population, Hurley creates an intriguing sense of conflict where the meaning of faith is questioned and tested.

This drama is played out in an eerie landscape which feels overwhelmingly bleak, grey and foreboding. The narrator comments that “I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it.” It's a sparsely populated rural area of farmland where unseen strange pagan rituals occur. There is a special ancient shrine that isn't often visited, but which the small group from the parish go to so that Hanny can drink the holy water and hopefully be cured. The Loney itself is a treacherous stretch of land on the coastline where the tide washes in and out of quite quickly, often surprising and overwhelming anyone who might happen to be on it. It's a potent symbol of how a natural force greater than people can overwhelm them and control their destiny in a way that they don't foresee.

“The Loney” feels like a perfect read as we ease into Autumn for the tremendous sense of atmosphere and introspection it creates. This could have easily been a more straightforward spooky story of outsiders who stumble into a provincial area ruled by sinister old rituals, but Hurley makes it a much more nuanced and meaningful story than that. It's a novel with a lot of mystery and ambiguity – particularly because it's only told from the narrator's point of view and I gradually began to wonder if he's entirely trustworthy. He asserts towards the end that “Details are truth.” “The Loney” is a novel whose magnificent details evocatively and precisely evoke a certain kind of mood which seeps into your skin and makes you want to read on.

This novel is one of those rare great success stories in that it was first published in 2014 by a small press as a limited edition before being picked up by a much bigger publisher. When it was published by John Murray last year it received a wide amount of critical acclaim and won both the Costa Book Awards First Novel Award and the British Book Industry award for best debut fiction. Such a book comes with a lot of expectations and I was delighted to find “The Loney” lives up to them. Set in a bleak strip of coastline in the north west of England in the 1970s, it’s the story of two brothers who accompany their parents and members of their parish on a pilgrimage one Easter. Andrew Michael Hurley so skilfully builds a sense of a tense, gloomy atmosphere and creates suspense that I felt wholly gripped and wanted to understand the mystery of what happened during this trip. As well as being a satisfying gothic thriller, the novel raises compelling questions about faith, life's meaning and family.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment