Publishing Info: John Murray Publishing (2017)
Back Cover Summary:
After the blizzard of a century ago, it was weeks before anyone got in or out. By that time, what had happened, what the Devil had done, was already fable.
Devil’s Day is a day for children now, of course. A tradition it’s easy to mock, from the outside. But it’s important to remember why we do what we do. It’s important to know what our Grandfathers have passed down to us.
Because it’s hard to understand, if you’re not from the valley, how this place is in your blood.
That’s why I came back, with Kat, and not just because the Gaffer was dead.
Though that year we may have let the Devil in after all…
Andrew Michael Hurley, after receiving rave reviews for his debut The Loney, follows it up with an interesting read that beautifully writes up a vivid image of the barren Lancashire moors and the small settlement that lives in one of its valleys, even if it prioritises description and history over its own narrative.
The stand out aspect of this novel is the way the author uses language to create a chilling and isolating atmosphere that can be really well seen in the mind’s eye – readers can get a sense of how John’s new wife Katherine is feeling. Like her, we want to pull away from this isolated place but feel ourselves unable to. This is reinforced by the great way in which Hurley sews tales from the history of the village in order to reinforce the sense of deterioration and ruin that comes with being in an isolating place. He starts with the history of the mill that provided the land with cottages and workers to farm the land, before going into the more grim tales, such as the death of a local boy by drowning and how many people died during a particularly cold winter sent by the Devil. The Devil in this case is in the detail; when reading this, you sometimes forget that Hurley is describing a fictional village as part of his book.
If the descriptions of the moors and the village are nothing short of breathtaking, the plot of the book takes a back seat, which I’m not sure was a great decision. John Pentecost returns to his home village after years away, in response to the news that The Gaffer (John’s grandad) has died, with Katherine. Their return also coincides with Devil’s Day, a traditional day heavily linked to folklore around the Devil and his involvement with the village in its history. Katherine is also pregnant and starts to fall into madness as she spends more time in the village. That is the premise of Devil’s Day and the book doesn’t really go anywhere from there. It hints that various horrifying things will happen involving Katherine, the slightly creepy Grace and a set piece on the moors and in a hall where it is said its members summoned the Devil. Alas, nothing happens at all and the last chapter could be seen as an anticlimax and extremely frustrating after building up for 250 pages or so. However, I am more inclined to see it as a way for the author to validate the message of his book.
The writer does a very interesting thing with this book in making his narrator, the designated protagonist John, neither a reliable nor a particularly likeable narrator. For the entire second half of the book he is pressurising Katherine that they have to stay in the village in a way that becomes more aggressive as time goes on, not caring at all about her plight or even considering a compromise to slowly spend more time in the valley. Readers also become aware of his unreliable nature when narrating. He doesn’t lie to the readers’ faces specifically but he skims over events in the past, such as the local boy’s death, before coming back to it in the latter stages of the book to reveal the complete and grisly truth once they have got the full picture of John’s characters. This is interesting as it mimics the message that the book is trying to convey, that we can’t escape what will happen in our lives, much like a cycle of nature in a rural place such as the valley, and we are only kidding ourselves if we can’t see that.
The motivations behind making readers feel uncomfortable and helpless is understandable considering the book’s topic. For me, when the description is prioritised over the narrative, it ultimately distances myself from the writing as a whole. There were a few images and chapters where there definitely was tension but these were fleeting before the text switches back to John talking about the past or describing his tales to his son in the future, thus ensuring that he or his newly pregnant wife would be harmed for the duration of the novel. I admire this for building up a great atmosphere and image of the Lancashire moors and the valley, as well as its description of Devil’s Day and the Gathering, but the lack of resolution means it will be a book that I probably won’t return to.