The Lonely: A Book Review

Set on a “a wild useless length of English coastline”, The Lonely, a 2014 novel by Andrew Michael Hurley follows the uncanny experiences of two teenage brothers on a catholic pilgrimage in 1976. A desolate rural landscape, paganistic rituals and a house full of secrets: the perfect atmosphere for a modern Gothic novel. This novel is highly acclaimed and won the Costa First Novel Award 2015 as well as the British Book Industry Award for best debut fiction and book of the year. I was presented with the opportunity to participate in the BBC Radio 4‘s Book Club, as part of the Liverpool Literary Festival where led by James Naughtie, a group of readers got a chance to discuss the novel with the author himself. Despite supernatural horror not being my comfortable go to genre, I found this novel intriguing and the complex characters and mysterious happening raised many questions- a chance to discuss it with the author was too good of an opportunity to miss!

Andrew Hurley covers vast themes of religion, power and familial relationships which are discussed in complex detail in the book. The novel begins with the speaker, a museum worker (Smith or Tonto – we never find out his real name) narrating the tale of his pilgrimage as an adolescent returning to “The Lonely” after the death of Father Wilfred. A group of parishioners from the London parish of travel to the stormy coast line on a mission of spiritual cleansing and religious penitence. In a hope to find a cure for Hanny, a mute teenager, the group lead by Mummer journeys to a local Shrine but disturbing events begin to unfold. Spooky night noises and strangely behaved locals lead to increased tensions in the group and when a secret room is discovered in the house they are staying in, the power of mystic law takes hold. Throughout the novel the speaker takes the role of a primary career for his brother Hanny but as the trip continues both boys find themselves in situations they don’t expect which change their lives forever.

Setting is an important part of the novel that many of the readers noticed and it plays a vital part in the atmosphere of the events. As a resident to this stretch of Lancashire, the author understands the coastline and enables him to effectively express in depth the seascapes, moorland and the continuous rain that is routinely described throughout the novel. When I asked the author about whether there was any greater symbolic significance to the water imagery more than for purely atmospheric tension, he suggested that water, of course holds religious significance. It has a purifying nature for example the powerful water at the shrine. However, is also depicted as “cruel” and punishing. Hurley explains that it is the instability of the weather’s changing form and the force of uncontrollable elemental powers that that is the most threatening. The driving rain adds a mysterious and disorientating rural tension underlining the greater powers that are at work which maybe cannot be explained. Here the author embeds mystic forces and superstitions into the very setting explored in the quotation “acorn in a window to turn lightening away from the house”. Human power or religious faith has little effect here on the elemental forces and it is this external uncertainty that is most disruptive and unsettling to even the most rational reader.

Religious faith, despite not being able to control the external forces, greatly influences the internal beliefs and actions of characters in the novel. The characters are complex and none of their relationships with religion are straightforward. I take Mummer as an example, whom I found was an unlikable character. She is cruel and unloving to her sons and her rigid faith causes her sons significant emotional and sometimes physical pain. Her focus is fixed on attempting to cure Andrew, almost obsessive, that she neglects the majority of his needs leaving it for his brother to provide. For someone so absorbed in her faith, the hypocrisy of her actions is evident to the reader. Interestingly, one of the other participants explained that Mummer is archaic for actor and that is particularly symbolic as she appears dependent on religious rituals to justify her faith to the world. Once routine begins to unravel under the guidance of Father Bernard, who has a much more modern outlook on religion, it becomes apparent that her belief is unstable and weak. It is at this point that Hurley believes we begin to pity her. I do not like her as a character but her desperate need for faith highlights the fragility of her identity. Raised catholic himself and having since lost his faith, it is interesting to see Hurley‘s exploration of Catholicism. Although some may say the book is critical of Christianity and its inflexible tendencies, I find it instead is sceptical of organised religion as a whole.  The novel is cynical of faith, highlighting its flaws and providing Gothic alternatives of explaining the world, however it also acknowledges that faith holds great importance to many people and to the characters in the novel. The author explores the power of religion and the characters wrestle with ideas of faith and belief in a context of unsettling Gothic rituals.

In conclusion I found this novel truly fascinating and a compulsive read. It interestingly explores the fine line between catholic faith and mysticism elements with the back drop of an untameable and inexplicable environment. Hurley describes his inspiration from Yeats’s the second coming and this can be seen in the overlap of mysticism and religion leaving the reader questioning whether there is a knowledge that you shouldn’t pursue. The novel is full of eerie and supernatural elements that challenges the human experience of faith. The events are never fully explained. The plot twists and turns revealing many surprises. You come away from this book with more questions unanswered and to me, it means this Gothic novel has done its job.

For the full discussion of book go to the BBC Radio 4 Book club web-page – The Lonely by Andrew Michael Hurley broadcast on the 4th of November.

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