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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
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 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.
region's past is laden with rumors of witchcraft, which lends an air of
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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