Wednesday, 8 June 2016
Review by Kevan Manwaring of "The Loney" by Andrew Michael Hurley
This impressive debut novel, previously published by Tartarus Press, has sucked in accolades like quicksand – which would normally be enough to put me off reading it, being the contrarian that I am, but in this case I decided to give it a punt (thanks to my local library – use ‘em or lose ‘em). For once the praise seems justified. The Loney is an atmospheric study in faith, truth and the uncanny. It focuses on two brothers – one an elective mute – growing up in a Catholic corner of 1970s London. The universe of the novel is limited to their immediate family – the overbearing ‘Mummer’ and forebearing ‘Farther’ – and faith community, the claustrophobic, competitive parish riddled with sins, small and large. When their much-loved priest dies, a new Father tries his best to shepherd this unruly, opinionated flock. The annual pilgrimage to a shrine on the Lancashire coast, to the lonely stretch of the title, vividly evoked by Hurley, is hoped to cure all ills – especially the mutism of ‘Hanny’, the narrator’s brother. Instead, the trip opens up a whole can of worms. I must admit that I found the relentless pettiness and neurotic Catholic minutiae less engaging than the Loney itself – which is the real ‘star’ of this narrative. The author succeeds in creating a tangible sense of place, one that epitomizes the ‘English eerie’ as discussed by Robert Macfarlane and others. The Loney has a brooding sense of malevolence, as though the bleak section of coastline was the antagonist itself. Something chthonic and unwelcoming lingers there. The remoteness and neglect provides a zone of projection for the inchoate fears of urbanites (something that has been happening in English Literature since Beowulf). Whether the drear flatlands of the Fens, the grim North Country of the Gawain poet, or the blasted heath of Shakespeare, Britain’s few wildernesses offer a dark playground for imagined terrors. There are shades of The Wicker Man here – the spectre of dodgy pagan rituals awaiting the unwary who stumble upon them (the pilgrims might as well have ‘sacrifice’ pinned on their backs), although the ‘terror’ scale here is less Hammer, and more Hill. Hurley’s aesthetic reminded me of many of Susan Hill’s settings – lonely stretches of coastline, causewayed islets, chancy footing and vindictive tides. Madness always in the wings, or in the annexe. The Loney’s ‘heart of darkness’, Coldbarrow, could be in Hill’s real estate portfolio. One could imagine The Woman in Black’s sister living there. The stifling religiosity, small-mindedness and demonization of difference also reminded me of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. And I found shades of Graham Joyce also – although his prose has more warmth and humour to it – and a broader church than depicted here. The Loney is simply modern Gothic. Hurley has done nothing new under the sun here, but as a debut it is supremely confident, polished and promising. His prose is unshowy, no-nonsense, and easy-to-read, but there are poetic flourishes – distinctive dialect, arresting analogies, striking imagery – which make it punch above its weight at times. The ending is open and unsettling. Hurley resists exegesis and closure. What we are to make of the strange events is left to us to gnaw over in the middle of the night, while the existential wind of nameless terrors howls outside. Take it on holiday with you to an isolated cottage and scare the bejeezus out of yourself.
About the reviewer
Kevan Manwaring is currently undertaking a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester (in the form of a novel). He is an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies at the British Library, and teaches creative writing for the Open University. One day he hopes to have a proper job. Blog: https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/