It’s hard to know what to say about The Loney, partly because I’m not entirely sure what happened, and partly because the feeling it gives is somewhat indescribable.
But I’ll try.
First what is the Loney?
It’s a stretch of beach in a place called Coldbarrow along the North English coast, to which a small church group from London makes a regular pilgrimage to every Easter.
The reason for going? The Smiths have two sons, one of them – Hanny – is mute and child-like, and they hope that by praying in a shrine along the Loney will help cure him.
Their younger son is essential Hanny’s carer and seems to be the only one who really understands him.
It’s no spoiler to say that eventually something changes and Hanny aka Andrew is able to speak. We know this, because the story is told to us through the eyes of his brother some years later.
What we don’t know, is how it happened.
The group’s trip is led by Father Bernard, a new priest to the parish after Father Wilfred’s death. He and the younger son – he nicknames Tonto – provide much of the heart of the book, perhaps the most relatable characters of the book.
That doesn’t mean the other characters aren’t well drawn, but there is something off about them, about ‘Mummer’ and ‘Farther’, the elderly Belderboss’ and the villagers of Coldbarrow.
On top of it all, there’s the Moorings, the house they’re staying in, the home of a taxidermist, no longer there, but his presence still felt with his belongings, and his work still surrounding the home. At one point a secret room is found, despite the fact they’ve all been going there for years, but this doesn’t at all seem odd in this house.
Lastly, there is Hanny himself. He’s had to find a way to communicate without words, and only his brother really understands him. A toy dinosaurs means I’m sorry. A jar of nails indicates he has a headache. And a gorilla mask means he’s frightened.
There’s a chilling moment late on in the book, when Hanny says nothing, but moves to the corner of the room, putting his gorilla mask on. That conjured up an image in my head that will sit, uncomfortably with me for a long time.
We’re seeing all of them through the eyes of Hanny’s brother – I don’t think we learn his name, though I’m sure someone refers to him as James at one point – who is clearly unsettled throughout the visit to the Loney.
Of course, all of this IS told through his own words many years later, so it’s possible, considering the events that take place, that he has mythologised it in his own head, and that things weren’t quite as weird as he makes them out to be.
But however he’s reached this version of the story, the whole thing is gloomy. There is a pervading sense of greyness, and I think I was cold on the inside throughout reading it, as if I was there. The word that most people will probably use for this book is ‘gothic’ but I’m not sure if that is the right word.
Gloomy works for me. There is a gloomy, tense atmosphere throughout, and the writing really makes you believe that the village of Coldbarrow has probably never seen a ray of sunshine throughout it’s history.
The boy – James, whatever his name is – theorises at one point that there are parts of England that nobody has stepped foot on in hundreds of years, and you can well believe it having read this book.
A really atmospheric book with an ending that doesn’t quite give you all the answers, I can see how this won the Costa First Novel award.
This is the sort of book you should read in one sitting on a wet Sunday afternoon with a large bucket of tea. I’m giving it 3.8 out of 5.