Starve Acre, the house which Richard and Juliette inherited when Richard’s mother died, lies in a wild area of the Yorkshire Dales with Stythwaite, the nearest village, being two miles away, along a narrow road. Richard’s memories of his childhood in the dark, brooding house were not happy ones so he felt no emotional attachment to it, regarding it as somewhere to visit rather than to make a home in. So he was surprised when Juliette, who hated city life in Leeds, decided that it would be the perfect place for them to raise a family. She loved the idea of their future children having the countryside as their playground, believing that being part of a small community would be far better than living in an anonymous, urban environment, although she would soon come to realise that, as far as the local people were concerned, she and her family would always be regarded as outsiders, no matter how much effort they put into trying to integrate.
When the story starts, in the depths of winter, it’s clear that this idyll has been shattered. The couple’s five-year-old son, Ewan, had died at the end of the previous summer and, with each of them grieving his loss in very different ways, they are now struggling to find any closeness or support in their relationship. Richard, persuaded to take a sabbatical from his job as a history lecturer in order to deal with his grief, attempts to distract himself by starting to sort out the disorganised books and papers in his father’s library and by researching the history of the local area. The main focus for his research centres on excavating the field opposite the house, in search of the roots of the legendary Stythwaite Oak. Over the centuries, stories about the oak have become steeped in mystery and folklore and, although the tree no longer exists, it is believed to continue to exert a malign influence. The fact that nothing will grow on, or live in, the field reinforces the power of the myths which surround it and when he discovers some seventeenth-century woodblock prints of the tree amongst his father’s books, the disturbing illustrations depicted on them appear to lend credence to local folklore.
Whilst Richard spends hours, in all weathers, systematically digging in search of evidence of the trees existence, Juliette spends almost all her time in tears in Ewan’s bedroom because that’s where she feels closest to him, at times hearing his voice and sometimes catching glimpses of him. As she feels his presence there, she’s seldom prepared to leave the house; she just wants to stay with him, to keep him there and so can see no point in engaging with the outside world. She is desperate in her need to find meaning in what has happened, for answers about the afterlife and for comfort, so when a family friend suggests that the spiritual Mrs Forde and her followers, The Beacons, would be able to help her to find answers, to find a way through the maze of her grief, she arranges for them to visit. Although Richard is sceptical about both the people and their claims, and fears that Juliette is hoping for something far more from the encounter, he feels totally impotent in the face of her grief and, desperate for them to find a way to move forward, he agrees to go along with the arrangement.
This haunting story is told from Richard’s perspective, alternating between past and present to build a picture of the build-up of tension and mystery which had preceded Ewan’s death. Through these flashbacks it gradually becomes clear that although Ewan had originally been a rather sweet and happy little boy, his behaviour had become increasingly disturbed, especially once he started to spend time playing in the field. Some unprovoked violent and cruel incidents had resulted in children at school, and most people in the village, to becoming scared and suspicious of him. When his parents tried to find out why he was behaving as he did, all he could say was that he heard the voice of Jack Grey (a figure steeped in local folklore) in his head and was just obeying what it told him to do. Was this just a phase he was going through – after all lots of children blame imaginary characters for their bad behaviour – or was he being influenced by malignant, sinister forces?
I very quickly felt caught up in the escalating tension created as the author explored the different ways in which his two main characters were dealing with their grief. He very skilfully intertwined psychologically recognisable and credible reactions with deeply disturbing elements of supernatural influences in ways which left me feeling very unsettled. This had the effect on me of raising questions about how we attempt to make sense of those things which we cannot understand and for which there appears to be no logical explanation, and how we deal with events which feel almost unbearable in their impact. We all tend to seek explanations about why things happen, particularly when something feels randomly cruel and unfair, so it’s hard to accept that all too often, there is no explanation which will offer either definitive answers or guarantee comfort. As the author reflects, “What you go searching for and what you find aren’t always the same thing”.
I think that he captured the complexities of the grieving process with an impressive depth of understanding, recognising how it alters our emotional landscape in ways which are constantly changing and are so often incomprehensible, deeply disturbing, and unpredictable. His exploration of the different ways in which Richard and Juliette deal with their grief demonstrated how easy it is for a psychological rift to develop in a previously close relationship, with neither person being able to find any meaningful point of emotional contact. There were moments when I found it harrowing to be exposed to so much raw sadness and incomprehension, and yet I felt I had to stay with the couple as they struggled to cope with the almost unimaginable grief over the death of their only child. The geographical isolation of their home somehow added to a powerfully claustrophobic sense that they were trapped in their grief, neither able to escape its intensity nor to find a way through it.
Guilt is so often a feature of the grieving process and this was a theme which ran through the story. Juliette in particular struggled with it as she reflected on the past, wondering if her actions had contributed to what had happened to Ewan and whether his death was some sort of punishment. Richard’s reflection that it sometimes seemed to him that “Juliette had brought twins into the world: Ewan and Guilt. The latter had always been the stronger of the two … When it had outlived Ewan, it had grown larger still” captured the intensity of a belief which, whilst appearing irrational to other people, has the effect of trapping the sufferer in a downward spiral of blame.
The author’s powerfully atmospheric evocation of the landscape of the countryside, and its changing face throughout the seasons, threaded its way through this story, making it a significant character in its own right. He captured the sense in which the power of nature can often feel overwhelming, making us feel relatively small and insignificant in comparison. Myth, folklore and legends continue to exist in our modern world, but perhaps particularly strongly in those communities which are more isolated and insular. Yet he captured how these can affect even the most rational of us when we are brought face to face with experiences which appear to defy a logical explanation. It is almost as though we can all, in certain circumstances, experience an atavistic response to things we cannot understand or explain, tapping into the Jungian concept of a “collective unconsciousness”, something which echoes down through the generations.
As he explored the parallels between emotional and physical landscapes there was so much which is metaphorical in the author’s writing and yet this never felt forced or overdone, it just added impressive layers of depth to the story. This was a theme in his two earlier novels, The Loney and Devil’s Day but, although this story is shorter than either of those, I think he used it to even greater effect. The dark, Gothic horror which permeates his writing (he describes his books as “folk-horror”) is something I relished in those earlier books, but I found his use of it in this story far more unsettling, to such an extent that, as I write this review a week after finishing the book, I still feel haunted by the thought-provoking sadness and strangeness of it. I think it’s his best yet.
Although there is no escaping the fact that this is a desperately sad and dark story, I feel that I must point out that there is one very welcome moment of lightness and humour to be found in it … in the account of the part Ewan plays in welcoming guests to a New Year’s Eve party!
Linda Hepworth 5/5
Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley
John Murray 9781529387261 hbk Oct 2019