Though this book did win a Costa award, my book club’s reason for choosing it is that we are based in Lancashire near where much of the story is set, except is isn’t, not really, unless you shared the dark, gothic imagination of the author. Luckily, I do!
This is a strange story that does not really slot into a genre but does seem to touch gothic horror with overtones of young adults fiction, reminiscent of Celia Rees’ stories about Edinburgh. As with Emily Bronte, the physical nature of the landscape dominates the story and the action that takes place there, though Hurley’s landscape seems to switch between Morecambe bay and the bleak mud flats of Pilling sands, with their big skies and quicksands. Though Hurley does not match Bronte’s skill, the landscape intruding, sometimes feeling so bleak it’s almost comic and the portrayal of the London home of the protagonists is so broad brush it could be Anytown.
Having said that I do understand why this intriguing story won a prestigious award. It is a dark and mysterious tale, set in the mid 1970s, about a small group of Catholics and their priest, who travel from London each Easter on pilgrimage to a small shrine in this lost corner of the Lancashire coast. The central characters are two brothers, one is nicknamed Tonto by the priest, the other Hanny, has some sort of illness which seems to be combination of learning difficulties and mutism. Though it is never quite said, the purpose of the pilgrimage in the eyes of the small group is to pray for a cure for Hanny, culminating in him taking the waters at a small shrine. The boy’s mother fanatically believes in a miracle cure, if only she prays hard enough and manipulates the group to do her bidding. There is a subplot about the strange circumstances surrounding the death of the previous priest who the boy’s mother was devoted to, and her inability to accept the new ideas of the young Irish priest who has replaced Fr. Wilfred. Fr. Wilfred’s presence lingers through the stay at the Loney and all the new priest’s efforts fall short against it. All these stories whirl around the coast as the tide comes in and out and the two boys play along the shore line. They meet some of the ‘locals’, vicious men who let their dog rip a lamb apart and seem to be working in league with a posh Daimler driving man who lives along a causeway at a house with a murderous past. These characters are rather vague and shady, at times feeling like something out of the ‘League of Gentlemen’. They have a pregnant girl at the house, possibly as young as thirteen, who possesses apparent supernatural powers. This aspect of the story remains in the shade. The multiple narratives twist around each other as faith is called into question and the price of miracles explored.
It is a page turner, I read it on a holiday flight and certainly worth reading. It did have some flaws in my opinion in the plot devices, such as Tonto’s ability to overhears confessions and the retrospective narrative structure, he is telling the story from the present as an adult. However, some of the descriptive writing is first rate, such as the description of meeting a local tramp in a bus stop, and the ability to leave gaps for the imagination to fill is excellently executed as in the best gothic fiction. This is a really good first novel and I think Hurley is definitely an author to watch.