The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley
I so wanted to like this book and did – but with a grave reservation. This is the story of a place – the Loney – a ‘strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune’ where our narrator travels each Easter for penitence, prayer and to ‘look for God in the emerging springtime’, with members of both family and church. In particular is the narrator’s brother Hanny, a simple soul unable to speak…if there is one thing the group wish for it is a miracle to cure his problem…
Hurley has a clear talent for creepy. He has created a claustrophobic, cluttered world where everything causes pause for thought, nothing is left to bask in the sun when a shadow or chill breeze will do.
‘The stink of booze drifted from them as they sang old songs in bass voices; songs that didn’t have the predictable, homely rise and fall of the hymns we’d been singing all week, but which tumbled through strange minor keys and moved across intervals that sounded like they might have once charmed the Devil to the surface of the world.‘
It is a world of the grotesque, both in people and incident:
‘Inside was an ark of stuffed animals – a hundred or more. These were the unsold, uncollected, unfinished works. Botched jobs. Seconds. The cold and damp had taken its toll and there were rows and rows of shrunken squirrels and rabbits. A poodle’s head had sunk in on itself like an old balloon. In the far corner we found a tandem being ridden by two mangy chimps. Neither of us wanted to touch them so we fetched a broom and pushed them off. They fell stiffly to the floor, still grinning, their hands like claws, as though they had been frozen solid.’
All of this Hurley does so well, so it comes as a great disappointment that the ending is botched. I don’t want to spoiler the book for those who haven’t read it, except to say that I’m still not entirely sure what happened in those last few pages at the end of that fateful sojourn. However, I truly look forward to Hurley’s next book: if he can pull off a great ending I see him becoming a great writer of the creepy, subtle horror story.
Thin Air – Michelle Paver
I LOVED Paver’s last book for adults, ‘Dark Matter’, a wonderful ghost story in the manner of M.R. James. Her latest, ‘Thin Air’, follows a similar story, that of a doomed expedition, this time up Kangchenjunga, a mountain in the Himalayas…and therein lies the problem. It feels too much like ‘Dark Matter’ to be truly interesting: Once the set up is known I felt I knew what would happen next and surely enough… The other issue I have with the book is that Paver moves away from the unexplained nature of the horror in ‘Dark Matter’ to one which comes down to a human desire for revenge, and as I have said previously a great ghost story is one which doesn’t explain, doesn’t humanise the supernatural. In doing so Paver relegates her book to less than great. However, we mustn’t forget that Paver is still a great writer and can conjure up shuddering slights of hand like James himself:
‘I switch off the torch, and darkness presses on my face like a hand’
Christodora – Tim Murphy
Christodora is painted as ‘The powerfully moving story of one family and a bold and poignant portrait of the bohemian Manhattan of sex, drugs, art and activism over four decades.’ Like all the best soap operas it is a compulsive read. However, there are some major issues which need to be tackled.
The Christodora is a crumbling building in Manhattans Lower East Side until during the 1980s those with money move in and , like in the rest of Manhattan, begin to gentrify. Artist Jared takes over the apartment bought by his rich father and he is soon joined by Milly, his wife and fellow artist. Milly’s mother, Ava, works for the City’s Public Health department with her new intern, Hector. As AIDS develops, both Ava and Hector move into activism in order to save those around them. As a gay man Hector is acutely aware of what AIDS means to his friends and lovers such as Puerta Rican Issy Mendes who joins the activists when her status becomes clear. Issy dies leaving a beautiful baby boy – Mateo – who Ava vows to protect, a child who Milly falls in love with and adopts. Mateo grows up in Christodora and develops his art…and a drug habit which brings him into the orbit of Hector, fellow Christodora dweller and now fallen on hard times, fuelled by drugs and sex.
Murphy flits back and forth across the 4 decades covered by the plot, which works well, apart from the occasional slip. It presents an engrossing story with a strong emotional pull centred around the relationship between mother and child.
However, this novel made me angry in the way it uses the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s as a footnote, as a plot device, a backdrop to the family saga. Sure we learn about Issy Mendes and Hector, but they appear to be there simply to produce Mateo in the first instance and then to encourage wayward urges in the later years. This feels so wrong, so mercenary. I presume ‘Christodora’, being named after a building which famously was at the centre of anti-gentrification riots, is an extended metaphor for how society now wants to white-wash all the unsightly, ugly, testing aspects of society from view, instead preferring the nice and the pretty and the good and the privileged. Sure, Murphy shows the ugliness that can exist behind these doors of privilege, but he does this by carrying out gentrification of his own: by placing the destruction of a generation of gay men, poor immigrants and black people in the margins.