John Murray, 2017
"Like salt boiled out of water, these things remain. Everything else has evaporated."
Andrew Michael Hurley is a gifted author; there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I will be reading every book this man writes. He has this uncanny ability to bring nature and landscape to life to the point where they are inextricably bound to plot and characters. The Loney is a perfect example of how he does this, and he's managed it once again here, in Devil's Day, set in a remote farming village in Northern Lancashire.
The book starts out with a bang. As the back cover blurb reveals, "All stories in the valley have to begin with the Devil," and this one is no exception:
"One late October day, just over a century ago, the farmers of the Endlands went to gather their sheep from the woods as they did every autumn. Only this year, while the shepherds were pulling a pair of wayward lambs from a peat bog, the Devil killed one of the ewes and tore off her fleece to hide himself among the flock."According to the legend, the Devil moved down among "the heathen folk of the Endlands," to become "the maggot in the eye of the good dog, the cancer that rotted the ram's gonads, the blood in the baby's milk." There are hundreds of stories that can be told about this place, but as our narrator, John Pentecost, reveals,
"The problem is that in the Endlands one story begs the telling of another and another and in all of them the Devil plays his part."Things pick up from this point, beginning with the return of John to his family home for the funeral of his grandfather that everyone called "The Gaffer." He has brought his pregnant wife Kat with him; they plan to stay on for the traditional "Devil's Day" celebration, which is built on more rural myth about the "Owd Feller" being driven away for another year, and return to their normal lives once everything is over. However, a number of strange things begin to happen during their stay there that defy explanation, leading the reader to ponder whether they're of this world, or whether the Owd Feller has put on his fleece once again and taken his place among these people.
At the very core of this story, which completely envelops the reader in the Endlands, its mythologies, and its history, is John's return home. Watching his father trying to manage the family farm under adverse conditions after the death of the Gaffer tugs at something within him that had been trying to surface since John and Kat's wedding. And while this book definitely has all of the trappings of a horror or supernatural tale, it comes down to a question of family ties and tradition, memory, and the legacy of one's ancestors. As in The Loney, the author once again does his beautiful thing with opposites, to explore tradition and change, insiders and those who don't belong, as well as a number of other issues that crop up throughout the story. He also sets up the narrative to move between present and past as he explores the secrets held in this place.
I can't really explain in writer or reviewer terms (because I'm neither -- just an average reader person) the depth that this man can reach in his writing but his ability to get there is, for me, what sets him apart from a number of writers at work these days. When I said above that he "envelops the reader," I meant exactly that. I'm there in the Endlands and I'm just as steeped in rural mythology/tradition as the locals. I felt the cold during the big snowstorm. On and on. Now, having said that, I felt that the pace of this novel was just plain dragging in parts -- it starts out so well and is so lovely, and then it slows to where a snail could have traveled the distance of the Endlands before things picked up again. And then there's the constant telegraphing of John and Kat's future (no surprise there) and as I'd waited for an explanation of how all that came about, I was rather disappointed that it was all tied up in a few paragraphs. To add to my disappointment, the story of John's boyhood was rather obvious in how things were all going to turn out -- it was almost to the point where I'm just like "get it over already, since I know what's going to happen." On the other hand, the big secret that lies at the bottom of what happens in this book was well done, and completely unexpected, and added a new dimension to several questions I had while reading.
So I'm sort of torn -- I love the writing, I love the central focus of this book, I love the landscape. I wasn't exactly enamored of parts of this story, which I thought could have been handled better. What can I say? I'm a picky audience. However, yes to recommending this book, because this man is an author to keep an eye on, and no one should bypass the first two novels or any that he plans to write in the future. I don't often find novelists I admire this much, and even though I had issues with Devil's Day, in the long run it's all about the writing for me.