Andrew Michael Hurley has written three short novels. They’re all disturbing but this latest is the most worrying of all.
His work is not to everyone’s taste, and I know one person who actively shudders when she utters the names of his books, but I love them. What most appeals to me is the weaving together of careful, vivid writing about specific places, strange interactions between human beings and other human beings and also between people and …I don’t know what to call it. The Unnatural. The Supernatural. Other Forces. Ghosts. Folk Memory... take your pick. Some reviewers have referred to the genre Hurley writes in as ‘folk horror.’
Starve Acre is short enough to be a novella. Its story would be harrowing even with no supernatural elements. A couple, Richard and Juliette, are recovering from the death of their very young son, Ewan. They’ve moved into a house belonging to Richard’s parents. There’s a field close by called Starve Acre, that no one in the area will even approach. A giant gallows tree grew there long ago. Now, the field is barren. Centuries ago, three young men from the village were hanged there for crimes committed under the influence of Jack Grey, a malign presence, like some kind of devilish Green Man. Everyone shuns the field.
‘Local lore had it that the divine reprisal had not ended with the tree but had spread out across the common in a poisonous ripple, turning the grass black, seeping down into the earth like oil, suffocating the life out of the place.’
But Richard, an academic, assuages his pain at his son’s death by exploring: digging in the field eager to find the roots of that tree. He comes across the skeleton of a hare and takes it carefully home where he puts together the hare’s bones, like some horrid jigsaw puzzle. Juliette spends a great deal of time in what was Ewan’s room, weeping and recording what she’s sure is his voice, his presence. To her, he’s not dead at all, but still in the house. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s a group of people, led by one Mrs Forde who might be able to help Juliette come to terms with her bereavement. They’re called The Beacons and they’re…. shall we say unusual? Hurley is very good with gatherings of odd people…they appear in all his novels.
We also learn that `Ewan is not just any child. He can’t even be classified as a ‘difficult’ child or one who’s suffering from autism, say. He is very much more than that…
And the hare that Richard has assembled becomes hugely important.
The last scene is one that you will not ever forget. I guarantee this. Please, if you’re the kind of reader who does this, do not turn to the end first. Please…
One reason for reading about tragic events is to give relief to the reader, through what the Greeks called catharsis. The pity and terror you feel for others helps you to confront your own sorrows. But where the pity is mixed with so much horror, it’s harder to be comforted. When the whole is written so powerfully and beautifully, the weight of the prose, and the bringing into your mind of a complete and carefully described landscape is a special kind of pleasure.
I read this book on my Kindle and I see I’ve underlined something…it shows up blue as I go through the pages. This is what it says and it’s a good motto for the whole novel:
‘What you go searching for and what you find aren’t always the same.’