The Loney is an interesting book to write about (not least because spell-check keeps asking if you do, actually, mean ‘lonely’). In some ways I feel as though I have read this kind of book before, yet in some cases it is clearly taking old tropes and refreshing them in an interesting way.
The tale starts when the narrator and his mute brother, Hanny, are children of deeply religious parents, are on an Easter pilgrimage to an area around The Loney, an isolated strip of land, in the hope that Hanny will start talking again. Attention is called to the ancient feel of the place, the idea that there are parts of this desolate landscape which haven’t had human contact for hundreds of years. I liked this particularly Gothic aspect of the novel; there is a timelessness to this place, a sense of the past and the present colliding in unsettling ways.
Present-day London seems like a far more recognizable world, as opposed to the narrator’s childhood exploits around the Loney. A baby’s body has been found in the Loney and this story is all over the news. The narrator has his own life in this familiar world, where he has been receiving therapy. He sees scraps of his therapist’s handwriting during his sessions – apparently he is a ‘fantasist’. Is our narrator unreliable? This increases the sense of unease.
Something that has always stopped me from loving Gothic fiction is the lack of humour and lightness in such novels. Gothic novels are melodramatic; where there is melodrama, there can’t be much silliness to lighten the mood. The amplifying of tragedy is precisely what makes these novels so scary. It’s interesting, towards the end, when we are taken to the present day. The sense of unease has gone. Things feel lighter.
I think another thing which I have found difficult in reading Gothic fiction is the gendered roles (the hysterical or virginal girl, the big evil man). The narrator, a boy, takes on the role of Andrew’s carer, something his parents should be doing. Mummer is a fairly unsympathetic figure, while Farther (sic) seems more kind, if absent.
Religion features heavily in these books. It is sad to see what Mummer and the rest of her group of friends on the pilgrimage do to their own children, because they think that they are saving their souls. In one flashback, a boy is made to clench his fists around nettles by a priest. This is upsetting and baffling to me, but I think that the novel gave me an insight into these characters’ internal lives. They actually think that they are helping to save these children.
The Loney examines themes I tend not to read very often, in a genre I am wary of. It reads very quickly. It is a huge achievement for a debut novel, which initially was given a very small print run and then went on to win the 2015 Costa First Novel Award. It’s interesting to think about why this is. Why has a novel based on a popular 18th century genre become so popular? Dracula and other vampires became popular during the period of colonialism, representing the selfish fears of the old British Empire. I think that this novel may reflect some deeper fears about contemporary Britain.