The Loney is a slow burner of a book. Its title refers to a desolate region in Lancashire, England. The rugged and weathered landscape provides a canvas on which the characters illustrate their convictions, delusions, and frustrations. If all this sounds a bit heady, it is. Author Andrew Michael Hurley saturates his narrative with a weighty sensibility and simultaneously creates a subtle ambience of unease. He is a master of restraint; his precisely measured prose makes for a leisurely unfolding of events. Things said or done seemingly in passing, for example, can subsequently prove very germane to the plot. With simmering hints and images that unsettle, this stately paced novel exemplifies delicately laced disquietude.
In 1976, something happened in The Loney that dramatically changed the lives of Londoners who made an Easter pilgrimage to religious sites there. The purpose of the pilgrimage is to heal an adolescent named Andrew, referred to as Hanny, who is mentally impaired and mute. Hanny’s mother is profoundly pious. She is adamant that a curative miracle must soon be in the offing. Her faith sustains her; propelling her forward, dominating every aspect of her life. Having relied on the stringent instruction of Father Wilfred, who initiated the pilgrimages, the mother is dissatisfied with Wilfred’s more liberal replacement, Father Bernard. Wilfred became strangely addled while walking the shoreline during the previous excursion, and returned to London an altered man. After his subsequent death, six pilgrims return to the terrain, along with two newcomers, escorted by Father Bernard. Bernard affably bestows the moniker “Tonto” on the story’s first person, otherwise nameless, narrator. He is Hanny’s younger brother, as well as serving as his communicator and caretaker. The siblings rely on each other for support against their mother’s ruthless and tyrannical piety.
Moving between the present and 1976, the tale divulges early on that Hanny is now a married pastor with two kids. He wrote a highly successful book entitled My Second Life with God. His brother, however, is anti-social and seeing a therapist. Occurrences that explain how the men arrived at their respective current states comprise the bulk of the novel. Dark deeds involving a young pregnant girl, a mysterious fop who drives a Daimler, and unsavory locals, factor into the evolution of the bonded boys into adults.
The Loney is as much about place as it is about people. The remote strangeness of the locale is beautifully utilized to heighten the pervasive off-kilter elements: “I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained stagnated in the same way.”
Nature is depicted almost another character in the narrative, providing the catalyst for acknowledgement of what was buried by words and time. The turf has unearthed a grisly remnant of the 1976 expedition. Hanny’s brother relates his side of what transpired, but has a different version ready for public consumption. He echoes the sentiments of Father Bernard regarding what constitutes truth, observing that “there are only versions of the truth. And it’s the strong, the better strategists who manage them.”
Andrew Michael Hurley is an astute fellow. In the publicity material for the book he notes that condoned cultural behavior can cloak abuse: “Religious certainty encourages and permits a cruelty that is dressed up as love and devotion.” The Loney won the 2015 Costa Award in the category of first novel, as well as the 2016 British Industry Book of the Year. Originally published in a limited edition by Tartarus Press in 2014, it went on to later release via John Murray in the United Kingdom and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the United States. Hurley’s debut as a novelist is extremely impressive. Upon finishing the read, there’s a desire to go back over certain relevant passages and marvel at how the foundation was laid for what comes later. The Loney will be justifiably admired by writers, as well as discerning readers who like to saunter rather than rush—and who prefer the implied to the explicit.