Book Review: The Loney
by Andrew Michael Hurley
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
The “wild and useless length of English coastline” in Lancashire known as the Loney is the setting of Andrew Michael Hurley’s dark and gripping debut novel by that name, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2015 and comes with a gushing cover blurb by none other than Stephen King. The book has had its translation rights sold everywhere from Toronto to Tasmania, and it’s been garnering critical praise from all quarters. These are all the ingredients of a thoroughly insufferable new literary career being born in a flurry of trumpets; it’s the kind of thing that whets the knives of carpingly envious critics.
The Loney doesn’t deserve the hosannas of adulation it’s already received, but mainly because no book possibly could. On its own merits it’s a smoothly accomplished debut novel, an intelligent, energetic assay into classic Gothic territory. Smith, the book’s narrator, prodded by the runaway success of his brother Hanny’s book, reflects on their childhood in an almost dementedly passionate Catholic family. Their father and “Mummer,” their family friends, their parish priest Father Wilfred … the group of them make an annual trip to a Catholic retreat at the Loney, to two decrepit buildings divided by the furious tidal inlet that twice a day isolates one part of the spit from another with a violent regularity that Hurley draws very effectively:
A dead mouth of a bay that filled and emptied twice a day and made Coldbarrow – a desolate spit of land a mile off the coast – into an island. The tides could come in quicker than a horse could run and every year a few people drowned. Unlucky fishermen were blown off course and ran aground. Opportunist cocklepickers, ignorant of what they were dealing with, drove their trucks onto the sands at low tide and washed up weeks later with green faces and skin like lint.
The family is increasingly desperate to find some kind of cure for Hanny, who in childhood was a silent and frozen boy evincing many signs of deep-running trauma. His affliction stirs the darkest parts of the family faith, and Hurley excels at conveying the tangles of peat-bog Catholicism:
The worse the torment, the more God was able to make Himself known, Mummer said, invoking the same branch of esoteric mathematics Father Wilfred used in his sermons to explain why the world was full of war and murder – a formula by which cruelty could be shown to be inversely proportional to mercy. The more inhumane the misery we could inflict upon one another, the more compassionate God seemed as a counterpoint to us. It was through pain that we would know how far we still had to go to be perfect in His eyes.
The Loney ultimately stakes out a very circumscribed ambit for its work, and it’s tremendously effective within those borders, a smartly readable modern-sensibility variation on the Gothic template.