Review by Linda Hepworth
Publisher: Point Blank 8th July 2021
ISBN 978-1786079770 PB
In an impressively skilful way Helen Sedgwick has combined many different genres in this dark, disturbing, and atmospherically creepy novel. Set in Burrowhead, a tight-knit village on the windswept coast of northern England, the story is told through multiple perspectives, moving between past and present as, layer by layer, it reveals how DI Georgie Strachan’s present-day crime investigation uncovers links with historic crimes, supernatural happenings, ancient folklore, and ritualistic sacrifice. Forty-year-old bones have been found in a farmer’s field and an archaeological dig on the site of a motte uncovers ancient remains. Could there be anything linking these separate discoveries? What secrets are the native villagers determined to keep hidden? Are ancient pagan rituals still being carried out?
By setting this story within a small, very insular community, where many of the villagers are resistant to change, cling to traditional ways, are suspicious of newcomers (a description which can include people who’ve lived there for several decades!) or of anyone who is different in any way, the author was able to explore the conflicts which can arise when firmly held beliefs are challenged. She used her characters to capture a sense of how many of these feelings are reinforced when a community feels disenfranchised when the political and social landscape changes, when traditional jobs are lost, and not replaced with alternatives, and when a consequent loss of services (Georgie works from a run-down police station which is under threat of closure) further isolates them. However, by including characters who are not resistant to change, who want to reach out and show kindness, forgiveness and acceptance, the author offers hope that people can learn from the past and move on.
Racist abuse is one of the threads which runs through the story. Georgie and two of the other characters are from different ethnic backgrounds and, through describing their different experiences and reactions, the author was able to illustrate not only the impact on the targeted individuals, but also how other villagers responded to the abuse. It’s clear from the start of the story that Georgie and Fergus’s marriage is under great strain, with a major point of conflict centring on how they each react to the racist behaviour. Fergus (who is white) is inclined to always look for the good in people, to seek to rationalise their behaviour and thinks Georgie is over-reacting. However her experiences have made her angry, inclined to believe that anyone who doesn’t directly challenge prejudice becomes complicit in it … ‘So much easier to forgive racism if you know it’ll never be directed against you.’ For me, one of the most satisfying aspects of Helen Sedgwick’s storytelling lies in how effectively she uses her characters in this way to portray a range of different opinions and attitudes and, as the story progresses, to feed in snippets of background information to enable the reader to gain some understanding of why they behave as they do … deeply flawed, complex characters always make for a much more satisfying reading experience!
There were times when I found parts of the story viscerally chilling, as though I was witnessing something truly evil taking hold … in fact there were moments when I hardly dared to turn the page for fear of what might happen next! I think this is testament to the author’s skill at tuning-in to sub-conscious, primitive fears and to superstitions that perceived threats can only be warded off by performing certain rituals … although usually not as violent as the ones described in this story! I think this escalating tension was reinforced by her evocation of a very powerful sense of place, with the village, the motte, the archaeological dig, an ancient standing-stone and the windswept coastal setting conveying a sense that the very landscape was imbued with memories of the ancient past living alongside, and influencing, the present.
This novel is a sequel to When the Dead Come Calling (the first book in a planned trilogy of Burrowhead Mysteries) and initially I found it difficult to feel engaged with the story. The numerous allusions to past events and relationships didn’t offer quite enough information to enable me to put what I was reading into context, meaning that I frequently found myself being distracted as I attempted to understand what had gone before. Although, as will by now be clear, I did eventually become fully immersed in this haunting story, I would strongly recommend that the books should be read in sequence.