In The Hunger Trace Edward Hogan has produced a characteristically English novel set among the hills of Derbyshire. Hogan’s elegant prose makes the English county of Derbyshire a main feature of the book with its remote villages and sodden countryside. He has an obvious love of his home county and writes eloquently of its rugged charms:
The walls of the gritstone gorge rose high above Detton village. In the soft light, the cliff-face looked tooth-marked and bruised, like half a discarded apple. Above the face lay a green scalp of land patched with enclosures . . . autumn’s gravity created movement and noises everywhere. Clouds diffused the sun like lampshades, giving all objects an internal luminescence, their shadows falling at strange angles.
The book’s four solitary and variously damaged characters try to find a solace in each other which ultimately none of them can provide. Hogan shows a rare talent for getting into the heads of isolated people who find more satisfaction in their relationships with wild creatures than with friends and neighbours.
The events in the book take place after the death of David Bryant, the creator of a wild-life park. He has bequeathed the park to his wife Maggie who bravely continues to run the park with the help of a few dedicated staff. The book opens with a phone call telling Maggie that her herd of ibex has escaped and is running freely on the main road through the village. Maggie quickly asks her neighbour Louisa to hook a trailer to her old Transit van and to help her locate the animals and bring them back to the park.
After this dramatic start we learn more about Maggie and Louisa. Maggie was David’s second wife and is now step-mother to Christopher, a young man with a personality somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Maggie does her best to care for Christopher as he struggles with bullying and learning problems at a local college. Christopher is hostile to Maggie however and it soon becomes apparent that he may have been responsible for cutting the fence on the enclosure in which the ibex live.
Louisa lives in a cottage next to the wildlife park and lives for her falcons. She scrapes a living by exhibiting them at countryside shows. Now in her late forties, she loved David devotedly from being a teenager but her love was never reciprocated. When she was fourteen she covered up for David after a terrible shooting accident but got no reward for it other than the dubious satisfaction of self-sacrifice.
Louisa saw various other women come and go through David’s life and resents Maggie who managed to have what Louisa always wanted. Her devotion to her birds is now all-consuming and Edward Hogan writes eloquently about the work of a falconer. Indeed it is through falconry that the book got its title, because Maggie’s first love, Diamond, an old peregrine falcon had been terribly neglected by his previous owner leading to distinctive marking on his wings:
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.
Maggie, Louisa and Christopher bounce off each other causing differing levels of disruption and emotional pain in each other’s lives. Christopher provides a humorous voice in what could otherwise be a rather bleak novel with his devotion to the legend of Robin Hood, his drinking binges and his search for love through dating websites. Hogan has got Christopher’s voice just right, a character both lovable but annoying, even dangerous at times.
The fourth person could seem to be an unlikely intruder into the developing drama. Adam is a male escort who offers a discrete service to lonely Derbyshire women. It would be spoiling the story to describe Adam’s role in the story, but although slightly implausible at first, Hogan’s character building skills make his presence believable enough to contribute a vital part of the story.
It is the sheer quality of writing which makes this such a good read. The caged animals and tethered falcons become a stark counterpoint to the locked-in lives of the four main characters. If they were set free, they would be unlikely to settle elsewhere and would no doubt return to the hub of their inconclusive, even fraught relationships. While the book focuses on these relationships, there is also drama in abundance and I pay tribute to Edward Hogan’s skill in managing all these elements of his story in such a skillful manner.
In reading of Louisa’s love for her falcons, I couldn’t help but think of Barry Hine’s wonderful 1968 book, A Kestrel for a Knave in which a young boy find and trains a kestrel which he names “Kes”. The artwork on the cover of The Hunger Trace shows a remarkable similarity to the cover on the scholastic edition of Hines’ book!