The Loney won last year's Costa First Novel Award and comes garlanded with praise, so my expectations were high.
There are similarities to THE TROUBLE WITH GOATS AND SHEEP which I’ve recently reviewed: a child narrator acutely observant of adult behaviour; credulous adults seeking divine reassurance; cruelty and callousness hidden in plain view; and the two novels are even set in the same year, 1976. But The Loney’s wind-battered coastal setting, the recent death of a priest under mysterious circumstances, its eerie buildings and hints of pagan rites providing a counterpoint to the pilgrimage undertaken by the central group of characters, give it a Gothic feel, very different from the winsome charm of Joanna Cannon’s novel.
The narrator (we never learn his first name) accompanies his parents, older brother Hanny and a group from their local church on their yearly pilgrimage to Moorings, a bleakly isolated house near Morecambe Bay. Hanny is mute and apparently autistic, and one aim of the journey is to pray for his cure, with the aid of holy water from a nearby shrine. The frame story lets us know that Hanny has indeed been cured and – now adult – has become a priest in his turn, while the younger Smith brother is undergoing therapy. News of a landslide at Coldbarrow and the discovery of a long-dead baby revive memories of the long-ago Easter at the Loney: “that strange nowhere …Dull and featureless it may have looked, but the Loney was a dangerous place … neap tides would reveal the skeletons of those who thought they had read the place well enough to escape its insidious currents.” It can easily be predicted that someone will become trapped or swept away at a later stage of the novel, especially as the boys are drawn to Coldbarrow, the island linked to the mainland at low tide by a causeway.
Their curiosity is piqued by the house there, Thessaly, and glimpses of a stern couple with a young pregnant teenager who turns out not to be their daughter and whose pregnancy is, chillingly, not her first. Other sinister locals include three locals with a dog and gun who are pressed into service when the pilgrims’ minibus breaks down and later reappear as Mummers. Humour is added through the efforts of the boys’ mother to outdo rival Joan Bunce in piety, and her constant reproaches to the young priest as to how much more satisfactorily matters were conducted by his predecessor, the late Father Wilfred.
But while it’s easy enough for an author to create a sense of menace and lurking threat, it’s far trickier to pull off a satisfying dénouement. Macabre this ending certainly is; dramatic; sensational; puzzling; but for me, the required suspension of disbelief was too big a leap. There’s a balance to be struck between teasing ambiguity and intriguing possibilities on the one hand, and simply leaving too much unanswered or implausible on the other. In this case I don’t think Andrew Michael Hurley has quite succeeded; but perhaps that comes down to my aversion to the supernatural, and other readers clearly disagree.
Far more poignant, in my view, is the loss of faith experienced by Father Wilfred and recorded in his diary, which Smith finds, reads and absorbs. “He had been wrong about everything. God was missing. He had never been here. And if He had never been here, in this their special place, then He was nowhere at all.” In this novel, any supernatural power at work is of a very questionable nature.