Monday, May 9, 2016

Death in a Lifeless Place

Andrew Michael Hurley, The Loney

The receding tide at the Loney, a desolate stretch of beach along Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, England, reveals the gruesome remains of a murdered child. A nameless London recluse recognizes the place, and the body, from his boyhood, when his aggressively devout Catholic mother made annual pilgrimages to a nearby holy well. Our narrator, Smith, has buried his secrets for forty years, but knows everything will spill now. So he has to control the narrative.

Andrew Michael Hurley’s first novel, published in Britain in 2014 and making its global debut, comes with a laudatory cover blurb from Stephen King. No wonder, since it’s essentially a Stephen King novel: superficially a horror thriller, it actually encompasses the consequences when childhood traumas rear their ugly heads in adulthood. It also addresses misplaced beliefs and human inability to comprehend the world objectively, common King themes. It’s a King novel with a Limey accent.

Throughout his life, Smith has been his older brother’s caretaker. The brother’s named Andrew (coincidence? I think not), but everyone calls him Hanny. Mute and perpetually childlike, Hanny communicates in sign language only Smith comprehends. Hanny’s parents, Mummer and Farther, along with several fellow London parishioners, make an annual pilgrimage to the Loney, hoping holy well water will make Hanny whole. This despite the evidence it hasn’t yet, which has pushed Smith into nihilistic malaise.

Though presented as a thriller, this book is principally a family drama about religion. Our narrator struggles—or, more accurately, fails to struggle—to reconcile his mother’s deeply held beliefs with the evidence that life is a meaningless mechanism. But it also encompasses families’ difficulty communicating the most significant topics. Mummer and Farther, Smith, Father Bernard, and the parishioners share their concern for Hanny. They just talk past one another translating that concern into action.

Andrew Michael Hurley
Every year, the parishioners visit the Loney’s holy well on Easter Monday, force-feeding Hanny supposedly sacred water that consistently makes him gag. They occupy the same late-Victorian rental property, visit the same pre-Reformation church, pray the same prayers. The persistent ritual gives their lives shape; for them, ritual comes first. But Smith notices the ritual produces no measurable results. Early on, he seems ambivalent about belief and practice, though this eventually lapses into outright unbelief.

However, from page one, we know something the characters cannot know in the midst of events: Hanny really gets healed. He becomes voiced and sociable; eventually he becomes a married Anglican priest in a prestigious London parish. While Mummer and Farther hope Hanny’s voice gets restored, we wonder how, and by whom. Mummer, whose faith lapses into abusive fanaticism, hopes God will intervene. We wonder who comes wearing God’s face. Her future is our past.

While the urbanized, middle-class parishioners occupy their rental cottage, praying, locals notice and resent their presence. Taking the visitors’ presence as an affront, they find ways to insinuate their way into the house, extracting information from the parishioners while disclosing little themselves. Very Straw Dogs. Like many places in Northern England, pre-Christian traditions survive in Lancashire, dressed in sacramental drag. As sweaty local rituals encircle the clean, pious Londoners, we brace ourselves for the confrontation.

There, ultimately, is where this novel flails. If Hurley stuck with his strongest components, the brutal collision between faith and evidence, he’d have a powerful novel. Smith describes his parents’ willful blindness in excruciating detail, though later chapters imply Smith has his own blinders he’s worn so long, he’s forgotten they’re there. These parts really sing. However, he foreshadows his supernatural thriller elements so long, they’re an ultimate let-down, especially since they mainly happen offstage.

Hurley writes best not about the demonic, but about how humans conjure their fears into reality. He throws characters onto their own devices and lets them struggle. Both faith and unbelief appear as human attempts to impose meaning on the universe, which both prove equally unsatisfying. People struggle to communicate, understand, see, but are circumscribed by the evidence of their senses. Either way, we must make the Nietzschean journey through nihilism to find our meaning.

This novel has enough, in its struggles between faith and senses, to energize deep, inquisitive readers. Smith’s attempts to understand his family, couched within his failure to understand himself, make for deep reading. But audiences seeking the big, final Stephen King-ish conflagration will find his distant supernatural elements ultimately unsatisfying. Read this novel for its quiet, internal struggle, not its apocalyptic showdown. Because the former more than makes up for the lack of the latter.

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