Filler content with a loney

The fourth and final Tartarus Press title that was originally reviewed in Black Static #49:-

TARTARUS PRESS

The Tartarus edition of Andrew Michael Hurley’s debut novel THE LONEY (Tartarus Press hc, 278pp, £35) has already sold out, though a diligent search of the internet might throw up some copies going spare at a dealer or two, or on eBay. For those whose google-foo is lacking, publishers John Murray have recently issued a paperback edition.

Smith and Hanny (Andrew) are brothers. The latter is a distinguished and respected cleric, while Smith works in a museum and is under a psychiatrist who treats him for a never clearly specified illness, though words like “fantasist” and “guilt” are bandied about. It wasn’t always like this though. As children Smith was the one who looked out for his mute and mentally disabled brother. Everything changed in 1976, when members of the congregation of Saint Jude’s Church under the leadership of Father Bernard headed off to an isolated part of the Lancashire coast known to locals as The Loney for an Easter retreat. The deeply religious Mrs Smith prays constantly and hopes that a visit to a nearby shrine will cure her son, but there are signs that something else is taking place in the background, a pagan tradition in which sacrifice is a vital ingredient. With the discovery in the present day of the body of a child, killed by a bullet back in the 1970s, all the memories that Smith has been holding at a safe distance come flooding to the fore, and all that remains for him is to protect his brother from the terrible truth of what happened all those years ago.

As the dustjacket write-up indicates, there is plenty here to bring to mind The Wicker Man, with a form of paganism almost codified into the landscape. This is no idyllic Summer Isle though, but a bleak and minatory environment, one in which man for all his delusions of mastery is only tolerated. Hurley is superb at describing that landscape, capturing the isolation of the setting and, with sounds in the night, leering natives and strange things lurking in the hedgerows, equally adept at showing that it is inimical to man, or at least to the group headed up by Father Bernard. The wind batters constantly at the walls of Moorings, the fortress like farmhouse in which the group are settled, a place of hidden rooms and grotesque stuffed animals, while outside the sea rages and shifting tides threaten to trap the unwary beachcomber, and as if to underline the hostility of the elements, something that at times feels almost personal, it is flooding that brings to light the child’s body that is the starting point for this story.

Equally well done is the characterisation, the various lines of power that stretch between the members of this insular group, the polarity represented by the overly zealous Mrs Smith and the more laidback Father Bernard leading to carefully understated clashes, while hovering in the background is the mystery of what happened to the congregation’s former priest, Father Wilfred. There is humour too, with some of the dialogue and observations, especially those concerning Mrs Smith, bringing to mind television sitcoms with a priestly slant. The story belongs to Smith though, who regards the adults with a cool eye and a reasoning brain, seeing their hopes and fears, and the cruelties they commit, petty and otherwise, drawing his own conclusions and keeping his own counsel.

Crises of faith are at the heart of it all, with questions asked as to the grounds of religious belief, and if we should stay true to our belief even when we suspect that it is only a comforting lie, that there are other and greater truths, though maybe not so agreeable. Smith has no answer to this dilemma, but finds solid ground in the determination to protect his brother come what may, to cherish and preserve Hanny’s faith even though he has lost his own. It is a human solution to a metaphysical conundrum, and Hurley’s achievement here is that he presents the reader with similar choices, allowing us the possibility of miracles but never clearly revealing their cause or the mechanisms through which they are accomplished. A beautifully written and thoroughly absorbing work of fiction, The Loney is also a book that touches on themes that are fundamental to the human condition.

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