Starve Acre, Andrew Michael Hurley

Wow! This was deliciously dark and disturbing!

An ideal creepy read for that strange, unsettling time between Christmas and the New Year, where no one quite knows what day of the week it is or how long they have left on holiday!

I’d listened to The Loney by Hurley as an audiobook a little while ago, and recall feeling that it was promising but somehow didn’t quite reach the promise it held – my final comment on the review was

So, overall, I didn’t dislike the book and there were moments of great writing… But it felt strongly in need of some stronger editing and control. It was so nearly superb but left me not quite satisfied.

And so, when Audible kept sending me emails saying that the new book by Hurley was out, I was not rushing to read it. But something drew me in. The cover I think. I do love me a hare! There is something wild and untamed, feral and mythical about them, somehow both powerful and elusive. I think I’ve only seen one a handful of times, in a life lived in the countryside.

And so it proves to be in the novel where the hare takes a central role, albeit as a skeleton – initially. To paraphrase Dickens, the hare was dead: to begin with.

Before we meet the hare, however, we meet Richard and Juliette Willoughby, having recently lost their five year old son, Ewan. Despite his death, Ewan is very much present in the novel: dark hints of things he had done before his death give way to flashbacks showing them as Hurley reveals the dark truths with a great degree of control, peppering them into the story of his parents’ grief.

And they do not seem to be managing their grief terribly well: both are cocooned in their home, the eponymous Starve Acre, which they had inherited from Richard’s father whose own descent into madness and death seemed to still hang over the house; Richard has become preoccupied with archaeological digs in the mysteriously barren field in which the great Stythwaite Oak once stood, and from which criminals would be hanged; Juliet seems trapped in Ewan’s old bedroom, preserved as it was on his death, sleeping there.

And both parents are haunted by Ewan in different ways. Richard is beset by memories which seem to rise unbidden

Ewan could find him in the strangest of ways.

The rooks reminded him of the paper birds he’d once made in the small hours when the boy had been frightened and restless. And how, when the birds had been folded into shape, he’d told stories with them and Ewan had eventually gone, his big eyes closing in much needed sleep.

And Juliette more directly by voices and presences which she assiduously recorded in a notebook

The pages were filled with lists of all the moments of contact she’d had with Ewan since the funeral. Lists that had become much shorter in the last few weeks, sending her into an even deeper despondency. Hoping to pick up the faintest traces of Ewan that she believed were still left in his room, she used Richard’s portable Sony to make recordings each evening and had filled the place with mirrors. They sat on the window ledge and the chest of drawers, on the bedside table and against the walls, so that wherever Richard looked one reflected another and the room fell away into infinity.

Help was required and the help in this case took the form of Mrs Forde and the Beacons. With memories of the occultist and spiritualist religious fervour of The Loney, there was something familiar to the Beacons. A familiar ambiguity about their intentions – benevolent or venal – and their faith – genuine or theatrically staged. From their visit however, things changed for the Willoughbys.

For one thing, the skeletal hare was resurrected. And here, Hurley’s descriptions became wonderfully muscular. It was a slow development and one moment describes how

When Richard looked inside the box he found that as well as the leg joints being connected, now each piece of the backbone was cushioned by plum-coloured discs that yielded spongily to the end of his pencil.

He saw too that something string-like, as thin as cotton, had started to thread its way through the tunnel of the vertebrae, and angling the beam of the desk lamp through the eye socket he traced it back to the skull. At the rear of the cavity, the string protruded like a single white hair and at its tip grew a grey polyp that under the magnifying glass seemed to be crimped and folded into a tiny brain.

The slow rebuilding was beautifully written – a spontaneous reversal of decay. A miracle. Perhaps.

What I loved about this book – which The Loney shared – was its ambiguity. About the resurrection. About the hare. About the mythical Jack Grey, a Robin Goodfellow, Puckish character who was thought to inhabit the Willoughbys’ field and whom Ewan claimed to hear whispering into his ear to provoke his violent accents. About Ewan himself. About the boundary between the psychological and supernatural, the rational and the irrational. It is a novel that dwells on and dwells within that liminal space beautifully.

Was Ewan suffering from some personality disorder? Or was he genuinely being haunted by Jack Grey? Was the hare a reincarnated Ewan or an re-corporeal Jack Grey? Or something else?

No answers were given in the book.

And the ending was so deliciously macabre and unsettling!

Ratings:

Overall: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Characters: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Language: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Publisher: John Murray

Date: 31st October 2019

Available: Amazon

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