From this month, we're broadening the reach of the Sampling the Wine blog to include not only books by Vine Leaves contributors and the Vine Leaves Press catalogue, but any book that might be described as literary fiction. Not the simplest of definitions, as our first review under the new rules will make clear...
Andrew Michael Hurley's debut novel, The Loney, came recommended to me by a friend as the book that everyone in the trade was talking about—a winner of many book awards, including The Book Industry Awards 2016 Book of the Year. Though I'm usually sceptical that any book that has won a major industry prize may prove to be unreadable, my friend was so evangelistic that I thought I'd give it a go. This is in spite of cover endorsements that to an easily scared reader like me read like a health warning: "I read The Loney in one sleepless night, and it has haunted me ever since" (Daily Telegraph) and "A masterful excursion into terror," proclaimed the Sunday Times.
Expectations of Horror
Gingerly I read the first few pages, in broad daylight, and when not alone in the house. Despite my reservations, I was quickly drawn in by the narrator's introduction, which hints at his current need for psychological counselling, triggered by his boyhood experiences in a desolate area of British coastland whose name gives the book its title.
Swiftly we're drawn into his childhood memories. As a boy, he was unofficial protector of his mute older brother, who though unable or unwilling to speak, communicated effectively via a series of bizarre but effective props, donning a gorilla mask to show he is frightened and presenting a plastic dinosaur when he wishes to apologise.
The boys are brought up in a fervent Catholic household in which the protective mother (known as Mummer), habitually a hair's breadth from religious hysteria, seeks to cure him via repeated religious retreats to a desolate part of the north-west coast of England, where they may make pilgrimages to a local shrine. Accompanied by a small but interesting cast—a new priest, an elderly married couple, and the priest's PA and her fiance - the family embark upon an eventful final trip when the brothers are aged 12 and 16 that is set to change them all.
Interspersed in the unfolding story of their pilgrimage are flashbacks which reveal more about the impact of organised religion, in particular the previous priest, on the family of the narrator (nicknamed Tonto by the new priest).
Layered Description Builds Tension
The narrative slowly builds up a tremendous picture of desolation and decay, teetering on the brink of chaos. Not only is shoreline where the family will be based fraught with dangers such as treacherous tides and quicksand, but the house in which they're staying is the home of a former taxidermist, who on his own death has left his collection of preserved animals in situ. The notion of the family going to seek redemption for the mute brother in a house full of stuffed animals - apparently preserved but undeniably dead--is sublimely ironic. There are also rumblings of pagan goings-on and black arts or other forms of corruption among the natives of the Loney.
Layer upon layer of foreboding is set down in the description, with some of the writing so surgically precise and clever that it had me either laughing or punching the air with joy. Yet it never comes across as self-conscious or pretentious writing. It just builds up as naturally and seamlessly as a snowball, creating a profoundly affecting sense of place and an ominous overture to whatever may come.
To me, such skillful writing places this novel firmly in the camp of literary fiction. It also made sense, knowing that Hurley had previously published only short stories, which will have helped him hone his mastery of words on the smaller canvas. Many of the scenes or chapters in The Loney would make brilliant stand-alone stories or vignettes.
What, No Terror?
His mastery of atmosphere also kept me turning the pages, forgetting that I was nervous of what terror was to come. To my surprise (and, I confess, relief), that terror never came. This is in no way the modern Gothic horror that the publishers set it up to be. While there were moments when it almost channelled scenes from Rosemary's Baby, (Mummer forcing Hanny to drink holy water was horrifying, but only as an example of bad parenting rather than suggesting demonic possession), it was more often reminding me of comedies or parodies of religious practice or horror. Think Father Ted rather than The Exorcist.
I don't want to spoil the plot by explaining the outcome of the pilgrimage, or the long-term effect on either of the brothers or the rest of the family. Suffice to say it's an intriguing ending, with some surprises (though I wasn't as surprised at some events as I think the author will have expected his readers to be, and I wasn't entirely convinced by some of the plot points).
Many readers who bought it expressly because they enjoy horror, have objected in online reviews, feeling shortchanged and misled. You have to wonder how the author feels about this, as he too seems unconvinced that he was writing pure or classic horror. In a recent interview in The Bookseller, he says "When I finished writing, I wasn't sure what it was... I'd written this book and I wasn't sure whether it was literary fiction or whether it was horror or whether it was a family story. I wasn't entirely sure how to classify it or how to pitch it to people."
The Distraction of the Genre
Call me cynical, but my interpretation is that the publishers of the mass market edition (it was first published by small press Tartarus in a run of just 300 before being picked up by John Murray) decided that horror was the biggest money-spinner, so that's the flag they flew it under. If they'd focused the marketing on its literary qualities instead, it would doubtless not be flying off the shelves and across the ether as it is now. While I understand their commerical imperative, I think the misplaced horror label is an unwelcome distraction from the poetry and precision of the writing and from the complexity of his ideas and psychological propositions.
While delighted that Hurley has found such acclaim for his debut novel, I'm hoping that whatever he writes next, the publishers, who are now working with him on his second novel, do not try to mould him into something he is not, for the sake of sales, and divert him from his own distinct voice and vision, and that they allow him enough time to continue to forge his superlative prose.
I am now very keen now to read his short stories, published prior to engagement with a major publishing house, to see how they compare, and I'll be following his career with interest.