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Onyx reviews: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/25/2015

A small group of devout Catholics make an annual pilgrimage from London to a remote, almost feral, Cumbrian coastal location known as the Loney for Easter weekend. At the center of the group is a family consisting of two boys, including the narrator, who is known only as "Tonto," a nickname bestowed upon him by the parish's new priest, and his brother Andrew, known to the family as Hanny. Their father, called "Farther," which distinguishes him from Father Bernard, is a diffident, quiet man who tends to fade into the background, especially in the presence of their mother, who is a force of nature.

This is Father Bernard's first outing with the group, and Mrs. Smith ("Mummer") is bound and determined to teach him the proper way of doing things, the way his predecessor, Father Wilfred, did them. Mrs. Smith is a traditionalist and has little use for more modern ways of thinking or acting. She also has an ulterior motive: she thinks that this visit to St. Anne's Shrine (a place that, in her mind, rivals Lourdes but which is profoundly disappointing when the pilgrims finally reach it) will be the one that cures Hanny of his affliction. It's not entirely clear if Hanny is just mute or if he is mentally handicapped, only that he doesn't speak. He does, however, communicate in ingenious ways understood best by his brother. When he's afraid, he puts on a gorilla mask, for example. When he wants to apologize, he produces a toy dinosaur. To his brother, Hanny seems perfectly content most of the time; their mother's determination to see him cured of his affliction is what causes the most distress.

The novel starts in the present day when the narrator learns about the discovery of the body of a young girl in the Loney, which causes him to recollect that last, memorable pilgrimage. It seems apparent early on that there's been some sort of shift in the dynamics between him and his brother. Hanny has become somewhat famous owing to a book he wrote, and "Tonto" is fragile and broken. As a child, Tonto is a lonely but independent individual, a fact recognized by Father Bernard in bestowing this nickname upon him. The Lone Ranger would have been too much on the nose.

The bleak surroundings of the Loney feel primitive and primordial. The retreat takes place in 1976, but the house at which they stay is rustic and ominous. The region's past is laden with rumors of witchcraft, which lends an air of foreboding to proceedings. The pilgrims occasionally stumble across things in the fog that are disturbing. Icons and signs of more primitive rituals that are an affront to their mission. Things discovered within the house alarm its temporary tenants, some of whom seem to be looking for any excuse to flee back to London. Though this is a small, intimate group, its members don't seem especially fond of each other.

There is also a sinister house in the vicinity, situated on a property cut off from the mainland each day at high tide. Tonto and Hanny ignore admonitions from the grown-ups to steer clear of the place, which is occupied by people who harbor secrets and, perhaps, danger.

The Loney might best be described as contemporary Gothic, though the 1970s setting isn't exactly contemporary. There is a persistent sense of foreboding, even though nothing overtly evil takes place until late in the proceedings, and even then it's not entirely clear exactly what transpired. The trappings of the Catholic rituals of Easter are somewhat unsettling in this cloistered environment. Mummer's shrill and forceful attitude toward them feels near-maniacal at times, as if her entire self depends upon them. For all her devoutness, she seems at risk of breaking down at any moment. 

Faith and ritual are strong forces in this novel, but so too are the powers of things beyond understanding that fly in the face of mainstream faith and accepted ritual. The Loney and its inhabitants don't welcome these pilgrims. Even the weather seems designed to push them away. Father Wilfred experienced something during their previous visit that altered his worldview and led to his death, about which most people are reluctant to discuss, and this group of pilgrims risks the same kind of revelation.

This confident first novel summons to mind The Wicker Man and its mysteries. It is leisurely and intricate, with a depth of description that many contemporary writers eschew, painting the terrain and atmosphere of the Loney with a deft hand. Action proceeds at a natural pace, without many crises to push things along more quickly. It explores devout faith and believers, without denigrating either. And it is mysterious in many ways—the author does not seem to feel obliged to explain much of what happens and, in so doing, creates an even more substantial unsettling sense of unease.

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