Starve Acre is a folk-horror novel set amidst the desolate winter landscape of Yorkshire moors. Hurley is adept at describing the landscape, rendering the barren countryside in sparse, precise prose.
Hurley’s protagonists, Richard and Juliette, have returned to Richard’s childhood home, Starve Acre, to raise a family of their own. But, when their young son Ewan dies tragically, the house and surrounding fields end up haunted by the couple’s remembrances – the ghost of Ewan filling the space that should have been alive with the sounds of the family that Richard and Juliette were so desperate to create.
Hurley creates a complex and unsettling portrait of the grieving couple. Juliette, half-mad with loss and anger, turns to a group called the Beacons for solace, much to the annoyance of her pragmatic and practical sister, Harrie. Richard meanwhile, at a loss as to how to reach Juliette in her grief, has begun excavating the bones of a hare from the field across from Starve Acre and, in doing so, begins a fantastical series of events that soon spiral beyond his control.
Blurring the lines between the real and the uncanny, Hurley turns Richard and Juliette’s world on its head, using the hare to invoke not only the spirit of the troubled Ewan but the long-dead horrors of an old village folk-tale and a hanging tree.
And this, for me, is where the novel began to unravel. The first third of the novel, which introduces Richard and Juliette in their grief, describes the finding of the skeletal hare, and the loss of Ewan, is a masterclass in the build-up of tension. Hurley gradually layers up the uncanny, shifting between the everyday and the Gothic with accomplished skill.
Once the Beacons have visited Starve Acre, however, the novel takes a more fanciful turn. The lines between reality and fantasy blur further and, for me, the tension that was built in the first third vanished as I became lost in a quagmire of folklore and plot. It was if the characters were getting away from me, disappearing into the mist of the story in the same way that Juliette disappears into her grief. For some readers, I’m sure that this will only add to the sense of the uncanny but, for me, the lack of precision about how the various strands of the book connected together left me feeling frustrated. And the ending, which is suitably strange and unsettling, left me with many more questions than it did answers.
I would certainly read more from this author – and I think the novel has a great deal for book groups to discuss within its pages – but, for me anyway, Starve Acre didn’t quite fulfil the Gothic promise of its opening third.
Amy Louise Blaney, The Shelf of Unread Books, 2*
Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley
John Murray 9781529387261 hbk Oct 2019