Review published on January 4, 2018.
John Pentecost, the narrator of this gripping, disturbing and chilling story, was brought up on a farm in the Endlands, a remote group of smallholdings in the wild, inhospitable Lancashire uplands. Although generations of his family had eked a living from this harsh environment, John had escaped to university, become an English teacher at an exclusive boys’ school in Suffolk, married Katherine, a local vicar’s daughter and had made only occasional visits back to the farm. However, he becomes increasingly bored with teaching and, when Katherine becomes pregnant, his yearning for the farming community he had rejected becomes stronger. When his grandfather dies, leaving the farm to pass to John’s ailing father Tom, he and Katherine return to go to the funeral. They stay afterwards to help with the annual Gathering, the time in autumn when the sheep are rounded up from the high fells and brought down to the farms before the harsh conditions of winter set in. What Katherine doesn’t realise is that her husband is determined not to return to Suffolk but wants to help his father manage the farm. He is convinced that his wife will fall in love with the farm, recognise the pull of tradition and duty, and come to see this as a precious inheritance. Unsurprisingly Katherine doesn’t share his enthusiasm; unsettled by the strangeness of everything, and everyone, she encounters, she is desperate to return home.
Local myth has it that the previous century, during a blizzard which left this small community cut off for weeks, the Devil found a home on the moors. Known locally as the “Owd Feller”, a shape-shifting creature who is able to take possession of man and beast alike, he is feared in a powerfully visceral way by the locals, with anything bad or unusual which happens being attributed to him. Tradition has it that before the annual Gathering takes place the community must lure him down from the high moors, on what is known as Devil’s Day. This temptation takes the form of offerings of wine, lamb stew and music so that, when replete and intoxicated, he can be chased off by the sheepdogs in order to keep the flock and the community safe during the coming winter.
Told in flashbacks this story captures the claustrophobic nature of small, insular communities where people are steeped in tradition and ritual, where making a living is hard work and a constant challenge, where animals mysteriously disappear or get sick and die for no apparent reason, where walls fall down and buildings decay because there are never enough hours in the day, or enough people, to achieve that needs to be done. It is all too easy to see how belief in the Devil as the bringer of disaster finds room to flourish, how the myths about his activities abound, as do the rituals adopted to try to ward him off.
As an outsider it is all too easy to scoff at this belief in a malign, all-powerful presence but Andrew Hurley is a master at making his readers question their sceptical certainties! He is equally adept at evoking a powerful sense of time and place by using well-chosen words to capture a way of life which depends on people feeling as hefted to their community and way of life as their sheep are to their moorland territory. This is a way of life which requires some sacrifice of personal choice in order to enable the community to survive. For instance, it requires people to set aside personal grief and sentiment when floods, blizzards or frozen ground prevent immediate burial of their deceased relatives. Occasionally, it might be possible to carry the coffin, via the narrow “corpse road”, over the moor to the next village for burial but, if the blizzard takes hold when they are en-route, there is an acceptance that the coffin must be abandoned until the weather improves – “what has to be done was much more important than what had to be felt”.
I live in hill-farming country in the North Pennines and so many of the author’s descriptions of this way of life, and the traditions which surround it, felt so very familiar – as did his wonderfully evocative description of a jacket “… so soiled with grease that it had an iridescent sheen to it….” Having encountered many such jackets when queuing next to farmers in the local supermarket, I could not only immediately recognise that description, I could also smell that ancient build-up of grease!
Having read and enjoyed Andrew Michael Hurley’s remarkable debut novel, The Loney (winner of the 2015 Costa First Novel Award), I had wondered whether his second novel could possibly live up to my hopes and expectations. However, I need not have feared because Devil’s Day is equally powerful and engaging – in fact I think it is an even better one! I found that each one of his characters was immediately convincing because he succeeded in portraying their endless struggles to live with the precarious nature of their environment. His unsentimental descriptions of the frequently cruel and bloody nature of farming and country life added depth and authenticity to his descriptions of their lives. He captured a sense that, whatever their disagreements, when the community was threatened they were usually able to come together for the common good, as he did the way in which they used myths, superstitions and rituals as a way of making sense of their shared history. Paradoxically, he also showed how the comfort of ritual can just as easily turn into a noose, strangling any idea of moving forward if people allow themselves to remain in its grip.
I think that in this story the sense of menace the author evoked was even more powerful than it was in his first novel. I certainly found myself feeling caught up in the grip of something evil taking hold and there were moments when I hardly dared to turn the page for fear of what might happen next – and I have also been left with an absolute determination to never again to eat a blackberry picked after Michaelmas Day! (If you don’t already know this superstition, you’ll just have to read the book to discover why, after that date, you should leave any remaining fruit on the bush for the birds to eat!)
As well as the sense of authenticity which Andrew Hurley captures in his writing, I really appreciate the elegance and the literary quality of his writing and the fact that he makes every word count in his story-telling, with not one description feeling superfluous. As with The Loney, I know that Devil’s Day is a story which will linger in my memory for a long time to come, always a very satisfying way to come to the end of a book.
With themes including the pull of family traditions and expectations, what it means to feel exiled from your roots, the nature of long-held secrets, the power of myth and ritual and the place of folklore in communities, the nature of evil – and many others – this would make an ideal choice for reading groups.
Linda Hepworth 5/5
Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley
John Murray 9781473619869 hbk Oct 2017