The Hunger Trace by Edward Hogan (Simon & Schuster - March 2012)
The title image provides an original and powerful metaphor for the emotional development of the central characters in this gripping novel. Edward Hogan evokes a cast of intriguing people - real enough to be believable and eccentric enough to make you smile and read on. The portrait of Christopher, blunt, emotionally retarded but desperate to enter into the world of adult relationships, is delightful - somewhat reminiscent of Mike Haddon's adolescent with Asperger's syndrome in the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
The Hunger Trace is a beautifully artistic book - painted on the canvas of a Derbyshire wildlife park in a bleak season (weather and economy) - everything works to amplify the mood and behaviour of the characters. From the opening scene where Maggie, the persistent widow, drags Louisa, the reclusive falconer, to chase some exotic goats around the car park of the local supermarket, there is a touch of absurdity which stops you getting too bogged down in what would otherwise be a rather depressing theme. Plot-wise the novel centers on the adjustment of the three main characters to the death of David, the original owner of the wildlife park. The dust cover describes him as "charismatic" which is a fair description of a character who makes his appearance only through short flashbacks of his history with the two women but whose presence haunts their faltering attempts at relationships beyond him - a convincing study of grief.
The tentative truce between the two women who have both loved (and lost) the same man is thrown into confusion by the introduction of another man - the male prostitute, Adam. Other reviewers have found this character's fatal attraction to the older woman, Louisa, to be the weakest link in the book but I really enjoyed Adam - he is absurdly exotic in the same way that a wildlife park in Derbyshire is slightly ridiculous (especially if you have lived in Africa!) He is also on a leash but set free to come and go; he exhibits a stubborn pride and self-determination that mirrors the falcons that have become Louisa's entire world and her retreat from the risks of human intimacy. Throughout the book Hogan's exquisite descriptions of the birds and their interactions with people grounds the emotional tension of the human drama that plays alongside the avian one:
That night, finally, Louisa talked. She talked about her father whose big ears glowed red when he got angry, and her brothers who sometimes fought each other in the middle of the road. She talked about her dream of starting a breeding business, the dual chambers she would build, and her part in the original peregrine programme - the hand-reared bird who, believing himself to be human, took Louisa for a mate. She had collected his seed in a rubber hat she wore.
'You're saying you fucked your falcon?' Maggie said.
'No, he fucked me. He was the man. That was very clear.'
Hogan displays a confident mastery of language - his descriptions are eye-catching but never overworked. He weaves the internal monologues of the characters into the landscape of action in a fresh and tangible way - like Christopher's obsession with the Robin Hood story and its shocking, un-heroic ending:
When he looked down his forearms seemed to be bleeding quite openly, the rainwater brightening the colour, washing it away as more came to replace it. It made him feel weak but not unpleasant. Christopher tried to keep his eyes open. He continued to peer over the edge of the platform, watching the world gain weight.
I loved the ending of the book. It resonated with the reality that life is rarely as melodramatic as we want to make it and people can change, even though change is difficult and painful. This is a story about the secrets of the human heart and the hope that resides there in spite of the cruel and brutal world we sometimes inhabit: satisfying without being sentimental. I will definitely look out for more of this author.