The Hunger Trace
by Edward Hogan
Hogan's debut, Blackmoor, announced the arrival of a young writer with a distinctive voice. That most hackneyed of phrases usually means a writer with quirky dialogue or style but Hogan displayed neither of those traits, excelling instead in atmosphere and a book very much about its region: a failing coal-mining town in Derbyshire. I used to read a lot of American fiction and was always impressed by descriptions of the communities and lifestyles of those who may share English with us but could almost at times have been speaking another language. My recent reading of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake (about which I shall be raving soon) not only threw up that same feeling of region but made me realise (along with him hinting as much on Twitter) that Hogan had been influenced by Pancake's brilliant evocation of region and human transience. Pancake's story Trilobites is narrated by a man as tied to his surroundings as the fossils he digs up from the ground and Blackmoor too showed how insignificant we can be made to feel by the permanence of the landscape around us.
...this place is billions of years old. Those trees. They're going to be here when I've disintegrated, and maybe a hundred million years or whatever, they'll be a seam of coal ready for some twat to set another bloody village on.When I say a distinctive voice, I also mean a voice that unfortunately ruled me out of contention for the audio-book version ('Ee, I'll keep workin' on it, duck') of his debut and this his follow-up. It too is set in Derbyshire and showcases again Hogan's regional eye and ear. It is a very English book and one whose specificity means it deserves praise as much as the lauded writing of less familiar landscapes like those of Haruf, Proulx, Faulkner and Steinbeck. Now don't worry, I haven't lost my marbles and begun placing Hogan side by side with those giants (I'm sure even he would baulk at that), but it's worth pointing out I think our reluctance to celebrate those homegrown authors who have something to say about the world we actually live in.
The death of David Bryant, owner of a wildlife park leaves the park with an uncertain future and turmoil in the lives of those closest to him: his younger wife Maggie, son Christopher and long time friend Louisa. Maggie is left with the lame legacy of a failing business, a singular son with specific needs who isn't hers biologically and the welter of emotions that come with grief. As the trophy wife she is isolated from those she works with, lives with and alongside; but it is through the animals that she is considered to have little understanding of that we gain insights, like the deer that she hopes to add to the park, whose 'seasonal desires' match her own increased and then waning sexuality in the wake of David's death.
...the antlers growing as the hormones raced, the blood-rich velvet nourishing the hard bone beneath and then peeling raggedly. She loved the ugly, aching bellow. It was an unmajestic, hurt sound. During the rut, the neck of a red deer stag increases exponentially in muscle mass; such spontaneous gains are unrivalled in the animal world. And at the end of the season, the antlers fell off, one by one.
She is surprised by the increase in her libido, calling on the services of a male escort, Adam; her night-time trysts observed by neighbour Louisa. Louisa is a fascinating character. Her connection to the park is as a falconer and Hogan makes brilliant use of its terms and language in order to illuminate the lives of his human characters, including the novel's title (of which more later). But Louisa also has a far deeper connection to David, having been friends with him since they were schoolchildren and, more particularly, because they had long shared a terrible secret. He and the hawks have been so important to her in fact that looking back over her forty-seven years she can see that 'almost every decision had been taken with one or both of those concerns in mind.' David has played an especially important role and that secret I mentioned, that could be viewed as a terrible sacrifice on her part, is balanced by what she still holds close to her
Louisa held parts of David within her: stories, reflections, physical gestures that she had picked up over the long years of friendship. That was precious.
It isn't always as po-faced as that sounds. That kind of familiarity also gives rise to moments of humour, as when she recalls the particular facial expression David wore when talking about his son, Christopher, 'The sort of frozen, distant smile you affect when your horse comes a close third behind your mother-in-law's.' Christopher is set up early as a dangerous presence. A child in a man's body who sees 'the world askance', a large man-child of 18 hovering somewhere between adolescence and adulthood with anti-psychotic medication and the habit of peppering his speech with' erm's' (that quickly become, erm, annoying); we as the reader are never given the opportunity to completely relax in his presence. Sometimes he seems to be harmless, other times we worry that he might be about to sexually assault Louisa or even his step-mother. His obsession with what lies behind the myth of Robin Hood helps to develop the novel's brilliantly atmospheric final section where a deluge of biblical proportions mixes with equally stormy relationships. It is here that Hogan's writing really excels; location, mood and content all perfectly matched to help the climax achieve lift-off.
As mentioned previously animals naturally play a hugely important role in the book and the title itself comes from the world of falconry, explained when Louisa takes charge of a bird that has been neglected.
Diamond's story was written on his feathers - nothing sentimental or pretentious about that claim. 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.In many ways each of the principal characters has their own hunger trace, something in their past that has scarred them as obviously as any outward physical sign, and in the same way that a feather with a fault in it must have some impact on a bird's ability to fly, so to Louisa, Maggie, Christopher and Adam struggle to deal satisfactorily with what life throws at them. You might even think that the appropriation of one of a falcon's natural attributes, the extraordinary eyesight that effectively helps them to see the movement of the world in slow-motion and thus make them formidable birds of prey, might help them to see things better but even that might not be enough.
The thing about seeing the world slowed down, she thought, was that you could watch something terrible unfolding, without the ability to do anything about it. Perhaps you would not even notice that it was happening.A character who is a male escort may be a rather convenient way of examining and complicating the desires of the two female characters (I'm not sure how common a profession it is in the peaks of Derbyshire) but, that small niggle aside, the characters themselves are well developed and the trajectory each takes in the aftermath of David's death is always interesting. Anyone who has watched an accident unfold could attest to the way in which time seems to slow down. As hinted at in the extract above the reader of this novel can be fascinated by that same inevitability, unable to look away as it reaches its conclusion.