"Starve Acre" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by John Murray
Written by Andrew Michael Hurley
2019, 256 pages, Fiction
Released on 31st October, 2019
If you head to Amazon, you will find two books called Starve Acre; the first published last March authored by Jonathan Buckley, which is already bizarrely out of print, and the version I am reviewing today by Andrew Michael Hurley, released on Halloween by John Murray. Buckley is a pseudonym for Hurley, who originally wrote this short and very powerful tale for The Eden Book Society (Dead Ink Press), who have recently been publishing a series of short novels or novellas all written with pseudonyms.
In the UK, Hurley is a major force behind the revival of interest in folk horror, with his outstanding debut The Loney being both a huge commercial and critical hit (winning the Costa First Novel) after initially being released on a tiny print-run of 300 copies. His second novel, Devil’s Day, is equally startling. This latest effort has all his unsettling trademarks condensed into 250 riveting pages, with an undiagnosed sense of the uncanny in an isolated Yorkshire country house with a family failing to cope with an overwhelming tragedy.
Before getting to the plot it is worth noting that the Dead Ink version has chapters and the John Murray version does not. As the story unfolds in two timelines which are relatively close together, the version with chapters is significantly easier to follow. The only factor which differentiates the timelines is the single tragic event which the book is built around and chapters make it an easier read. There is little to gain in removing them.
Set in the wilds of remote north Yorkshire, Starve Acre revolves around the death of a child, which is revealed in the opening pages, so the story is ultimately even bleaker than the location. The first narrative follows the events leading up to the death and the second a few months afterwards. Both are harrowing reads, especially as the death itself dominates both threads but is described in only the vaguest of terms until the end. On one level the book is a study of the grief felt by Richard and Juliette Willoughby and how they cope with the loss of their five-year-old son Ewan, but there is much more to it than that. I know, and with good reason, many readers avoid novels which centre upon the deaths of children, but this gripping drama, with an exquisitely slow build-up towards the supernatural, is a stunning piece of writing.
This tremendous novel has several layers and like everything Andrew Michael Hurley has written, the location is absolutely critical. Richard and Juliette inherit Starve Acre from his parents and although he does not particularly wish to return to his childhood home, his wife persuades him to do so and not long afterwards the behaviour of their son Ewan becomes unpredictable, with signs of cruelty, and there is a brooding sense that something is not right. But what can they do? What makes this even more powerful is that the reader knows right from the beginning about the death of the boy and what follows centres upon the journey towards this horrific event and the latter disintegration of the family.
The house resides beside a patch of ground which in previous centuries was used for hangings, where a legendary oak tree once stood and which Richard develops an unhealthy interest in, whilst his son is both fearful and obsessed with the location. Developing bad dreams and fear of the dark, Ewan claims to hear a man called ‘Jack Grey’, who sounds like a boogieman from English folklore, however, I could not find any reference to him except for as a character in other ghost stories. These sequences simply crackle, and the fear experienced by the child is palpable, especially as the reader knows what calamity awaits around the corner, but not exactly how it will play out.
Throw in an outstanding séance scene, shocking animal cruelty, Richard and Juliette’s inability to help their child despite his cries for help, and isolation at the local primary school, the result is a multi-layered and outstanding story. Much of the supernatural element is subtle and kept low key until well into the story and the scenes with the hare in the pram are hard to shake off. If you ever read this book, you’ll know exactly what I mean. This is quite simply breath-taking imagery and evidence of a craftsman at the peak of his literary powers.
The pacing is outstanding and heads towards a knockout ending which, without spoilers, is worth a mention. The two versions of the novel have radically different endings; both are dark, but one is significantly darker than the other. I prefer the Dead Ink conclusion, which has more of a ‘small press’ feel to it; not that there is anything wrong with the John Murray ending. Should you be interested in reading the Dead Ink finish, forget it, their version went out of print the day the new version was released!
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