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Mar 12

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

What’s It About

Set mostly in 1976, congregants from Saint Jude’s Church in London are heading to the Loney, a small village on the Lancashire coast, for Easter pilgrimage.  Among them are two brothers, Smith and his mute brother Hanny.  What follows over the Easter period will change the lives of everyone on the pilgrimage and test the bond between two brothers.

Should I Read It?

Yes.  In my experience it’s rare for any novel – whether genre or literary – to treat faith in a sensitive manner.  But with great subtlety, intelligence and maturity, Hurley provides us with an astonishing book that looks deeply at faith by never mocking the believer or admonishing the non believer.  For a novel that invokes an uneasy, slightly claustrophobic atmosphere, unexpected warmth comes from the relationship between the brothers and Smith’s friendship with Reverend Bernard.

Representative Paragraph

I’ve thought about that look quite often as I’ve been getting all this down. What it meant. What Father Bernard had let slip just at that moment. What he really thought of Mummer. A line of dominos, spinning plates, a house of cards. Pick a cliché. He had realised what I’d known about Mummer for a long time—that if one thing gave way, if one ritual was missed or a method abridged for convenience, then her faith would collapse and shatter. I think it was then that he began to pity her.

Commentary

On the surface, there’s nothing particularly ambitious or original about The Loney.  The genre elements appear to draw heavily on a long tradition of UK and US horror novels dealing with isolated towns, often by the sea, where the residents are suspicious of outsiders, where the Old Gods still hold prominence.

For Hurley though, the familiar setting gives the books its unsettling atmosphere and tone, resulting in vivid, perfectly pitched imagery:

The night crept in at The Loney, in a way that I’ve never known anywhere else. At home in London, it kept its distance from us, skulking behind the streetlights and the office blocks and could be easily knocked aside in a second by the rush of light and metal from the Metropolitan Line trains that flashed past the end of our garden. But here it was different. There was nothing to keep it away. The moon was cold and distant and the stars were as feeble as the tiny specks of light from the fishing boats way out at sea.

But beyond the genre trappings, Hurley is engaging the reader in a discussion about faith, without the sensationalism or point scoring you might find in other novels.  I may no longer be religious, but I still appreciate a novel that doesn’t dismiss religion or ritual out of hand and doesn’t feature a cast of straw-people, whether it’s the narrow minded true believer or the Priest who turns out to be a pedophile.  Hurley avoids these cliches by not appearing to push a specific agenda.  If he does have a message it’s that rigid adherence to faith can be damaging. This is typified by the stout and conservative Father Wilfred who, we discover, loses his faith after a previous Easter trip to the Loney.  And as the representative paragraph above hints at, Smith and Hanny’s mother is facing a similar crisis, hiding it from herself and others through obedience to ritual.  Hurley could have left things there, made this a book about how strict faith can be psychologically damaging, but instead he gives us Father Bernard, Father Wilfred’s replacement, who is not only younger than his predecessor but also has a much broader view of the world.  He’s an engaging and warm character, but most of all he believes in God.  For Father Bernard faith is less about the rituals – a fact that annoys Smith’s mother – and more about love and care for his parishioners.  His relationship with Smith, whom he calls Tonto, is delightful precisely because, amongst other things, they discuss the vagaries of God.

Talking about relationships, Smith’s bond with his mute brother is beautifully realised and one of the highlights of the novel.  While he’s the younger of the two, Smith is unsurprisingly protective of his older brother whose inability to communicate has stunted his intellectual development.  But more than that, Smith is the only person in the family or the Church was has found a way to speak with Hanny.  It makes the miracle that occurs later in the novel all the more affecting and disturbing.

As important as the “miracle” is to the novel’s framing story and resolution, the supernatural is pushed so far into the background – really only emerging at the very end of the book – that I did wonder why Hurley had bothered, why he hadn’t just written a novel about faith and brotherhood.  But on reflection I realise that the ambiguity of those final pages – it’s not exactly clear what happens in the cellar… what Hanny sees… what Smith does… what ritual is taking place – slots neatly into Hurley’s exploration of faith.  It’s interesting to contrast Smith’s reaction to Hanny’s miracle – the dread and horror of a non believer – to his mother’s utter certainty that what has happened is a gift from God – the ecstasy of a faith.

If I do have a concern it’s that more people aren’t discussing The Loney.  Tartarus Press is increasingly raising its profile with the publication of fantastic and intelligent work like Angela Slatter’s marvellous The Bitterwood Bible and Nike Sulway’s award winning Rupetta.  And yet an astonishing good novel like the The Loney has been missed by the major genre websites.  As Jonathan Strahan points out it’s impossible to cover all the novels that are published within the genre.  But based on their past and current record you would think that a collection or novel by Tartarus Press would feature, without hesitation, on these sites.  Thank God then for the James Herbert Awards.   While I may not have been impressed with all the finalists, the awards existence is justified by simply recognising The Loney.

P.S.  I can’t be the only person who saw the title of this book and started humming the chorus of this Roy Orbison classic.

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