Review published on October 18, 2017.
This mesmerising and haunting story is told in flashbacks by the narrator, whom the reader knows by his nickname of Tonto. When he reads news of a child’s body being found on Coldbarrow, situated on the Lancashire coast, disturbing memories come flooding back. As a child he and his brother Hanny were taken, by Mummer, their ultra-religious mother, Farther, their more reasonable father, other parishioners and their elderly parish priest, on an annual Easter pilgrimage to a religious retreat which overlooked the wild coast and an area called The Loney. These visits would culminate in a visit to a Lourdes-like shrine in the hope that Hanny, who was mute and appeared to be mentally disturbed, would be miraculously cured of his affliction. The year that is being recalled in this story is different because the old priest, whose final visit to the Loney had caused him to have a crisis of faith, has died in mysterious circumstances, and has been replaced by a more modern priest. Although his personality is more appealing to the brothers, his approach to religion and to this pilgrimage is seen as being too modern and cheerful to satisfy the mother’s rigid view of faith and belief. The other characters include a group of local people who are, by turns, both helpful and rather threatening, particularly when they engage in pagan rituals; a shady character in a Daimler and a very young, but pregnant teenager, who may or may not be able to perform miracles. The story revolves around the rituals and influence of the Catholic Church and its rigid adherence to tenets of faith, set alongside equally powerful ancient, pagan practices and the even more powerful, unpredictable and ever-shifting forces of nature.
I felt mesmerised by this outstanding story from the very start and it never once loosened its grip on my absolute engagement with its slowly developing tension. My own belief in what I was experiencing as the story unfolded was constantly challenged – it felt every bit as unpredictable as the raw power of the sea and the wild coastline which is central to the mood and development of the story. Themes of faith, the desire for miracles, good and evil, paganism and conventional Christian beliefs wound their way through the story in a thought-provoking and, at times, very disturbing way. Then, set against all these themes, was the recognition that there was nothing predictable or controllable about the forces of nature and that the shifting sands would always, in time, reveal any secrets. I found it interesting that, for all her “conventional” faith and her belief in the power of divine intervention, Mummer was prepared to not only tolerate, but also engage in, some of the pagan rituals of the local people. Throughout the story I felt an awareness that, when they were struggling with their faith, people felt a need to “hedge their bets”, to not pass up any opportunity which might make them feel more in control of their situation.
I would usually be put off any book which is marketed as “Gothic” but I was persuaded to read The Loney partly because I am very familiar with this part of the Lancashire coast, and because the author was due to speak at a book festival I was going to attend. I am just so pleased that I did because this is one of the best books I have read this year. The subtlety of the writing is impressive and throughout my reading I felt confident that Andrew Hurley was in total control, not only of his development of this haunting, disturbing story, but in his use of language to convey what he wanted to say. Yes, there are gothic elements, supernatural happenings and moments of terror, particularly later in the story, but these are handled in an impressively skillful way. His style is a masterful example of “show don’t tell”, thus allowing the reader to feel fully engaged throughout; it is this very subtlety which allows the reader’s imagination to take flight, to evoke fear and disturbing uncertainty. In addition to everything else, I admired in his elegant writing style, I loved the way in which he evoked so vividly and accurately the ever-changing nature of the sea and the landscape; I really did feel transported to the world his characters were inhabiting and their struggles to adapt to it.
In my opinion, this is not a conventional horror story, it is much more an exploration of the psychology of people’s belief systems as they attempt to make sense of all those things which challenge their beliefs. I find it remarkable that this is the author’s debut novel so I am now eagerly awaiting his second.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough so I hope my enthusiasm will tempt you to read it for yourself!
Linda Hepworth 5/5
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
John Murray 9781473619852 pbk Apr 2016
The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements