Some books I think are destined to be read just at the right time, or you are meant to read certain books at the right time. You know what I mean. ‘The Hunger Trace’ by Edward Hogan is one such book and I should explain the background. The editor of the novel emailed me back in the summer knowing that I was a fan of Edward’s debut novel ‘Blackmoor’, she also knew I was from Derbyshire which was the setting once more of his second novel. I said yes I would love to read it but with a certain prize I wasn’t sure I would get to it anytime soon, sadly it languished. However I have to thank the author Evie Wyld who I heard on the BBC’s Open Book who described this novel as ‘a darker, funnier version of The Archers, the perfect book to curl up in front of a fire with’ instantly this was a book I had to read and so I elevated it straight to the top of the pile to read next. I am so glad that I did as ‘The Hunger Trace’ has now snuck in as a late entry as one of my books of the year.
From the very start of ‘The Hunger Trace’ I had an early inkling that this would be a book for me. It opens with two women, who clearly don’t like each other for reasons we don’t know as yet, having to capture a herd of ibex which have ended up in the local supermarket car park, using a van and a lot of shopping trolleys. There was a drama and humour in all this, along with a certain mystery, that instantly worked for me leaving me captivated, even better was this was a sense of feeling that Hogan managed to retain throughout the book.
‘The Hunger Trace’ has the unusual setting of a rambling wildlife park in the Derbyshire peaks high on a hillside with the village of Detton below. (This really called to me because in my home town of Matlock we have a castle on the hillside called Riber which was itself a zoo for many years, when it closed the owners moved next door to us with their eagle and other menagerie of creatures, which I was allowed to visit.)In this unusual setting we meet three people deeply affected by the death of the parks owner David Bryant; his second much younger wife Maggie, his son from the previous marriage Christopher and lifelong acquaintance Louisa who lives in one of the lodges on the site look after the birds of prey.
Each of these characters is coming to terms with the loss in their lives but also with how to relate to one another. Louisa, to put it mildly, doesn’t like Maggie for reasons that become apparent as the book goes on so I won’t spoil, I shall merely tempt you by saying that Louisa and David shared a secret in their youths. Maggie herself has to cope with taking on a venture like the wildlife park which she had never planned to be her role in life and also missing her husband and the emptiness in her life he has left in several ways. Christopher is working out not only how to cope with his step mother, especially now she is taking over all aspects of his life, he is also learning how to deal with the world as someone who is a bit different, I read him as being autistic though it’s never spelt out, and is often misunderstood or perceived as a threatening force. Things have been simmering a while and over the space of a few months and the arrival of Adam, a male escort (shocking, ha) and another character used to isolation and not quite fitting in with secrets abound, seems to start to bring things to a head.
Hogan’s writing and storytelling is incredible, especially in the underlying and unsaid. He somehow manages to highlight the way people feel about each other in not only what they say and its delivery but even more impressively, and true to life, in what they don’t say. It’s those small actions, sideways looks, and delivery of tone which we have all witnessed in real life which Hogan manages to make come off the page, something that is incredibly hard to do. Normally in fictions it is either the spoken work or inner monologue, and while Hogan does this both of these things too, it is those smaller actions which he makes say so much.
Maggie knocked loudly on the door, but then entered without waiting for a reply and stepped quickly through the hall and into the kitchen. She smelled of the clean air outdoors, along with a faint cosmetic scent – the first in Louisa’s house for some time.
‘Louisa, thank God. I knew you’d be awake. I need your help,’ Maggie said.
Louisa turned back to the sink. ‘I’m busy. What is it?’
‘We’ve had a breakout over at the park. Some of the ibex – the big goats –‘
‘I know what they are.’
‘They got loose somehow, and they’re on the road now.’ Maggie took a long breath. ‘If they get to the duel carriageway, we’ve got some serious trouble.’
‘You’ve got serious trouble. What am I supposed to do about it?’
‘Well, the Land Rover won’t start.’
Louisa took the keys to her van from her pocket, and threw them to Maggie. ‘Take mine.’ Maggie wiped the watery smears of blood from the keys with her sleeve and looked up with an apologetic smile. ‘I need you, as well,’ she said. ‘The trailer’s at my house and we’ll need to hook it up before we go.’
‘Jesus,’ Louisa said under her breath. But she could not refuse. She dried her hands on her jeans and followed.
Atmosphere is one of the things that ‘The Hunger Trace’ is also filled with. Like with his previous novel ‘Blackmoor’ Derbyshire is a brooding and slightly menacing presence, the landscape always features in the novel as those brooding moors, the winding hilly roads you worry your about to drive off and the forests which always seem to hold so many secrets linger in the background (being from there myself his descriptions really hit home). Hogan interestingly propels all these feelings and features in all of his characters be it in the slightest of ways. Christopher is a prime example, he is often very funny with his binge drinking and utter bluntness and yet there is always a slightly threatening feeling of danger with him, you never know what he might say or do next, these feelings spread throughout the book and your always just on the edge of your seat, rather like standing on the precipice of a Derbyshire valley with the wind almost pushing you over the edge.
‘At that time of year, nature blended the boundaries. Leaves from the hilltop churchyard blew across the animal enclosures and onto Louisa’s land. Wasps crawled drunk from grounded apples in the acidic fizz of afternoon light.’
There is a real sense of humour in this novel, dark but often very funny, yet in many ways it is a moving tale of people and their sense of isolation or being an outsider often leading to events in their pasts be the recent or from years ago. These are events that leave a trace on you and which is described beautifully when Louisa discusses her prized bird Diamond who she saves and leads to the novels title. ‘When a falcon is undernourished, the feathers cannot grow properly. A fault line appears, even if the bird is fed again. The fault is called a hunger trace.’ It is this hunger trace that runs through the main character of this novel and their obsessions which keep the real world at bay be they Louisa’s birds, Christopher’s obsession with Robin Hood or Maggie’s need to succeed despite what anyone else says.
If you haven’t guessed already, I thought ‘The Hunger Trace’ was an utterly marvellous book. It is superbly written, its characters live and breathe from the page and you are always left wanting more of both the humour and the dark sense of impending menace and mystery. I simply cannot recommend it enough, easily one of my favourite books of the year. It is books like this which really make reading worthwhile and I hope that many more people discover this gem of a novel.
It’s interesting that two of my favourite books this year, and I am including Catherine Hall’s ‘The Proof of Love’ with Hogan’s latest, have been based in small villages in the countryside with darker undertones. This could be a setting which simply works for me, so I am wondering if you could recommend any more novels along these lines. I have also noticed that these two books, which are also some of the best writing I have come across this year, have been under the radar to many. I am wondering how I can seek out more of these slightly undiscovered gems? Your recommendations will be a start, so get cracking (and you could win a copy of this wonderful novel). I look forward to seeing what you suggest.