The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

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The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A family pilgrimage to a remote shrine on the Cumbrian shore, leads to a blessing and a tragedy. Wonderfully atmospheric and beautiful lyrical writing suffuses a dark foreboding storyline.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: August 2015
Publisher: John Murray
ISBN: 978-1473619821

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Winner: Costa First Novel Award 2015

It's always a privilege when you're given an advance reading copy of something – and a real 'block' when you read the small print that says 'not for resale or quotation'. Fair comment on the resale bit, but when you get something as brilliant as The Loney being required not to quote is just plain unfair.

So with due apologies to the author, I might need to break the rules here. The trouble is: I finished this book with so many corners turned down, places where passages or phrases delighted me enough to know I'd want to go back to them, how can my words possibly sell it better than Hurley's…

Starting near the beginning If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it The Loney – that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest.

Those Easter trips weren't a holiday. They were a week of penitence and prayer and a chance to look for God in the emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all; nothing so vibrant and effusive. It was more the soggy afterbirth of winter.

The book opens, not in Springtime, but in the aftermath of an Autumn storm, where a sudden landslide on Coldbarrow had brought down a house and turned up the body of a child.

Coldbarrow, was an island – just off the coast, crossable to at low tide – if you follow the post-marks. Think Lindisfarne cross to the western shore-line.

I'm not sure whether it was the presence of Coldbarrow, but much of the description in the book, had me thinking of the wilds of Northumberland rather than the Cumbrian coast – despite the dangerous mudflats and foolhardy cockle-pickers.

There are other mis-castings in my reading of it. I looked up the author notes to find that Hurley has lived in Manchester and London before moving to Lancashire – yet the rhythm of his telling is Irish. Of course the new priest who comes following the sudden sad death of Father Wilfred is from Ireland and has served as best he could in the conflicted parishes of the 1970s when most of the story is set, but it goes beyond that one character. The narrator's voice has a hidden Irish lilt to it. A musicality that sits just below the words.

So: to the narrator: he's Hanny's younger brother and the one person with whom Hanny can really communicate. The boys have evolved a series of signs and symbols for feelings… for 'sorry' or 'fear' or 'confusion'. But Hanny isn't necessarily retarded (as the word of the time would have had it), he seems to understand his brother well enough. It's just that he doesn't speak.

And unfortunately for him, Hanny (or Andrew to use his given name) has been born into a family that believes that if they all pray long enough and hard enough, and take him to the shrine every Easter and force him to take the holy waters then eventually, by God's grace he will be cured.

So year after year they go back. Until one year, something happens, and Father Wilfred is never the same again, and the visits stop. And then Father Wilfred dies.

Then three years later with a new parish priest fully ensconced, Esther Smith – her faith strong and intact – decides that it's time to go back to the Moorings, the raven-flitted house on the Loney.

For such a holy place, Hurley does a grand job of making it seem at once blessed and god-forsaken, depending on the reader's personal point of view. Just as he manages to make his characters God-loving, God-fearing and somewhat lacking in Christian charity and hope… as though faith alone can make up for the lack of the other two.

I loved the priest Father Bernard, with his useless dog and an approach burned in the fires of the Ardoyne where he felt there were only ever versions of a truth. A realist who felt that getting the children to church through fun, was better than leaving them outside of it, and who seems to see that coming to faith through thought and choice was a better way than blindly stumbling into it, even if the thought took you away from it. A man secure enough in his own belief to tell a child, you don't have to believe, it won't stop God believing in you.

None of that accords with my own views on such things, I just loved the character for it.

I also feel sorry for him. He is emotionally (spiritually?) blackmailed into taking this ragbag of stalwarts from his parish on a re-instituted pilgrimage. Of course, he will never know how to do this right: to do things the way Father Wilfred did.

Our story-teller is happy to be up there on the coast again, and playing with his older brother, his 'little brother' really. Miss Bunce (private secretary to the late priest) is all for going somewhere else, her fiancé pretty well backs her every judgement, but the others want to go back.. to take Andrew to the shrine again.

When asked how Hanny feels about the whole thing, Esther looks like the question itself makes no sense.

And so northwards they troop into something resembling a cross between a gothic horror and the Wickerman and the meanderings of the romantic poets. The place is full of mists and marshlands and glowering menacing locals. The house is worse than they remember and that encourages exploration into parts of it previously ignored.

A storm opens up an out-house and a path into danger.

The boys stray over to Coldbarrow… and hidden menace suddenly becomes very real.

Looking back at the book objectively, there are signposts that I missed. By the third day when I was sitting up late to finish it, I'd completely forgotten the prologue having been so successfully swept up in the past… the days that led to the trip back to the Loney, and the events of that Easter weekend itself… I'd lost the point of where it was all leading so totally, that I had to re-read the last couple of chapters to make sense of them.

And if I have to own the weakness in the book, that's where it is… in the full play-out of what actually happens on Coldbarrow. I'm in two minds about it. I can see why it is written the way it is, and I'm sure as many readers will love the mystery of it as will leave having hoped for something more explicit. On balance, I think that more could have been given, without loss of atmosphere and reader-imagination. An error too far on the side of caution from my money.

But – don't let that put you off. What you get before you get there is worth the time.

I don't come down on the side of this being a 'horror'. It has those elements but it is part romantic-suspense, but also large part social history and post-modern society critique. Above all, though, it is beautifully written.

I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn't leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.

If you enjoy this, we think you’ll also love Alone In The Classroom by Elizabeth Hay.

Booklists.jpg The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2015.

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