When a young lady sends you a note saying you should really read this – well, your heart goes all a quiver. Then you find out it’s a Gothic novel. You know the kind. Lonely places. Empty spaces. Mad monks and things that go bore, and more bore, in the night. Books the size of tombstones that go on forever. By the end of the first chapter you want to fling yourself off a high flat, but you live on a ground floor and just can’t because you can’t move from your chair and your head is in your arse. Haunted for all the wrong reasons. Thanks for that Vera Clark.
The Loney is none of those things. It’s the best book I’ve read this year. Well, it’s only the 18th January, but if the best book I read last year was the Nobel Prize winning Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch then that’s good going for a first-time author. I’m reminded of John Davenport’s advice: ‘If Miss Lee was sharpens her style and is a little more parsimonious with the sugar, her second book will be something worth waiting for’. It wasn’t. They had to wait until Harper Lee was dead until they published Go Set a Watchman. And no wonder. Take away the bit about monks and everything I said about Gothic novels applies to her posthumous publication. You don’t need to nail down the coffin lid on Andrew Michael Hurley this is a living and breathing classic.
But I didn’t think I’d get into it. First paragraphs that start with a weather report usually has me reaching for a phial of morphine. Then we’d Dr Baxter, left hanging. Not literally hanging, but on the page. But that’s good, questions are good. Coldbarrow. There’s a name for you. Tells you everything about the place. ‘A cold spit of land.’ The first-person narrator tells the reader, ‘But I suppose I always knew what happened there wouldn’t stay hidden forever, no matter how much I wanted it to’.
The reader is given a snapshot of his brother Hammy, married with two boys on the cusp of University and successful careers of their own. Their father a much sought after minster who’d published a bestseller My Second Life with God’. There’s the hook.
What happened on the Loney – ‘the strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter’? And St Anne’s shrine, second only to Lourdes and in the mind of Mummer, the narrator and Hammy’s mother, not second, but the only chance of a cure for her boy.
Hammy communicates with his brother and guardian, four years younger than him, by what he carries in his pockets. ‘A rabbits tooth meant he was hungry. A jar of nails was one of his headaches. He apologised with a plastic dinosaur and put on a rubber mask when he was frightened.’ The reader knows he is cured, but not how.
The Loney is a place of pilgrimage, but not empty of people and the pilgrims bring the baggage of the past with them. In particular, what happened to Father Wilfred who led the early party of pilgrims and whose death left a whiff of something unwholesome, and it lingers in ongoing arguments within the group of the chosen. In particular, the affable Father Bernard, a farmer’s son from Antrim, whose job it was to replace that striker down of unwholesome practices and god-the-father like figure, Father Wilfred. It no surprise he can never measure up to his predecessor. And if he cannot lead, Mummer would drag the group –Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss, Miss Bunce and her fiancée David, and her two sons – through the waters of the Lonie to heal her son, come hell or high waters.
Both are sheltering on the Loney. Although he nearly drowns, the narrator has a sixth sense for such things. Laura and Leonard and the adolescent Else arrive in a fancy Daimler. The girl is pregnant, in a wheelchair and due to give birth in that forgotten place. But more worrying are the strangers Hale, Parry, Parkinson and Collier, whose dog chews a ewe’s new-born lamb to bloody stumps and who seem to have some strange hold over Clement, the caretaker of the house, the pilgrims stay in. Hammy has been allowed to touch and cradle the belly of the girl giving birth and want to return to Else who has bestowed a kiss on him. Collier, for his own reasons also wants the boy he terms ‘retard’ back in the cottage they are staying in. When he comes out of the cottage he is neither innocent nor retard. The miracle is in the prose. Classic.