The novel starts as it means to go on, painting a grim scene of death and desolation following an autumn gale in London, where the story begins. Our narrator (known only by his childhood nickname, Tonto), recounts the story of what happened at the Loney in flashback, following news reports of the body of a baby unearthed after storms in the area caused a landslide, crumbling an old abandoned house in the area. This opening, describing the unforgiving and uncompromising elements as revealing a long-hidden secret is extremely apt, as the greatest strength of this novel is its exploration and lucid descriptions of the power of nature and its overwhelming strength. This premise directly and intentionally conflicts with the other key theme of the story, that of faith, religion and the question of God’s supremacy.
“the Loney – that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune…”
The Loney, a vague and desolate fictional strip of coast is the setting for our tale, and the location for an annual pilgrimage of the parishioners of St. Jude’s. The story is told in remembrance of the final trip taken to this fateful place with the narrator’s brother, Hanny, his parents, members of his parish and the newly-appointed young parish priest, Father Bernard. Father Bernard is an affable priest from Rathlin Island off the north coast of Ireland, brought in to replace the formidable Father Wilfred. Having died in furtive circumstances a number of years after a mysterious incident at the group’s previous pilgrimage to the Loney, Father Wilfred left behind a fearful and insecure flock, seeking guidance and reassurance in the strict adherence to rites and rituals in order to reaffirm (and reassure) their faith. This annual pilgrimage to cure Hanny of his muteness is one of many obsessive rituals we witness throughout the novel.
Alongside the religious rituals associated with the group’s Catholic faith, the book addresses superstition and witchcraft, running these themes alongside one another so that they intertwine and it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Keeping a tight seal on their beliefs is an important metaphor; in the murky circumstances of Father Wilfred’s death the parishioners live in fear of this seal being broken and of them losing their faith, one could say like the breaking of the fetish jar intended to keep witches away.
“Here was the wild God who made nature heave and bellow”
What this novel does extremely well is to set the scene of a beautiful but desolate coastal landscape. The reader is transported to that eerie and bleak place, bruised and battered by the elements. The author successfully ensures that we feel insignificant and powerless against the strength of Mother Nature, that nature is supreme and that we as humans are merely part of an ecosystem, contrary to the convictions of Father Wilfred and the parishioners. The descriptions of the landscapes, the wildlife and the supremacy of the tides and the weather as an important factor of the outcomes of the book all contribute to the suspense of this novel, and as a nature lover this kept me turning the pages.
Hurley draws us in to the relationships in the novel, we genuinely care about Tonto and Hanny and admire the care and protection that Tonto gives his brother. We feel empathy toward Father Bernard and frustrated at Mrs. Smith, and endeared by Mr and Mrs Belderboss. However, I felt that the introduction of some of the more unsavoury characters (or caricatures?) was somewhat contrived, and almost comical in their presentation. There was Leonard the “lounge lizard, [the] spiv, a bent bookie with fingers full of sovereign rings and his blue shirt open two buttons at the collar”. Laura, the preening woman fixing her lipstick in the rear-view mirror. Clement, the friendly but dim giant and his little blind mother. And of course the villains of the story, Parkinson and Collier, the local thugs. At parts I was almost waiting on masks to be lifted and to read “And we would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you pesky kids!”.
“lost in the silence of the sands”
The Loney has been described as a gothic horror novel, and despite the fact that we never actually witness any violence, death or terror, it is implied and inferred – the only limit being the reader’s own imagination. Why did the couple on the beach have a heavily pregnant child in their care? Who left the effigy in the forest? What did they do to Hanny in the basement? While I enjoyed the suspense that this afforded and scared me a little as to how dark my own imagination can go (!), this did leave a few loose strands that I would still like answered!
I enjoyed reading this book (I read it in one sitting) and I found the story and the characters original and compelling. The chilling suspense was carried throughout the book, the only light relief being the friendly Father Bernard and his dog Monro. The descriptions of the landscapes were magnificent and I could imagine myself standing on that beach, listening to and watching the seabirds. However, this passion for the beautiful and desolate landscapes somewhat dominated the book, which as a result read overwhelmingly as though what the author really wanted to do was write about the landscapes, and the storyline was secondary, eddying around the shoreline, the rocks and the cliffs as a means to an end.
I hope you enjoyed my review, here is my literary mixtape for The Loney, made up of lots of haunting instrumentals reflecting the sadness and desolation of the Loney’s coastlines.
Do you agree with my review and with the Mixtape? Let me know in the comments below.