The Manchester Literature Festival Blog
Review: Writing the North
Our blogger Desmond Bullen reports from International Anthony Burgess Foundation, where Jenn Ashworth and Andrew Michael Hurley were in conversation about their haunting Northwest novels that follow families in search of a miracle.
Gathered beneath cheerless, leaden skies, in a building – full to overflowing – that thrums with its own ghosts, both industrial and illustrious, the portents are favourable for this conjunction of two Northern souls. Jenn Ashworth – with her fourth novel, the heartsick, sea-changed Fell – and Andrew Michael Hurley – with his Costa-conquering debut, The Loney – have fashioned their narratives on the same, shifting terrain. Alike, though distinct, the Literature Festival’s own Kate Feld coaxes out the commonalities and singularities that have shaped their respective stories.
Both have thrived at one time or other in the shadow of the proud Brutalism of Preston bus station, both have maintained the silent order of the librarian, and both have found common, unhallowed ground in the callous swells of Morecambe Bay. It’s apparent that the two share a mutual regard; Mr. Hurley reviewed Fell with fellow-feeling in The Guardian, and ideas ebb and flow between them across their encounter, unsilted and unstilted.
The Loney, from which Mr. Hurley reads first, takes perhaps a somewhat more familiar form, its characters more broadly archetypal in conception; a Lenten pilgrimage to a forsaken Lancastrian Lourdes, in which the brimstone certainties of Old Testament Catholicism are exposed to the elements of a pagan landscape’s more ancient entropies, it concludes with a miracle of devastating ambiguity.
Ms. Ashworth’s voice, is more allusive, more elusive; the ‘we’ of discarnate souls, reawakened to their home by their daughter’s return, recollecting their own promised miracle as they fret over the prodigal. If The Loney is a distant North English cousin of The Wicker Man, then Fell is a kitchen sink Brimstone And Treacle. Whereas the insidious creep of the former’s disquiet seeps from the suggestion of the supernatural, the terror of Ms. Ashworth’s novel is more dreadful for its very naturalness; loneliness, primarily in sickness, but also in health. Here, it is the idea of home itself that’s ambiguous, both as weather-blasted brickwork, and symbol of love’s unpredictable – yet apparently timeless – tidal flow.
Rooted deeper than the shared topography, far below the patina of genre, there’s a like sensibility in both works that can claim to be specifically Northern, in a manner that gives substance to the afternoon’s title. It’s in the interpenetration of the now and the then, the way that the past haunts the present; an ambivalent nostalgia in stark contrast to the continuous present of its contemporary metropolitan equivalent. It’s in the cold, bleak presence of an annihilating and impersonal nature; too dark to be abolished by street lights, too close for civilisation’s comfort. Finally, it’s in the stories we tell, to ward off the darkness by naming it.
In Mr. Hurley and – especially – Ms. Ashworth, the North is in a particularly fine voice.
Desmond Bullen was born in Colchester, a fact he conveniently overlooks in portraying himself as the spiritual descendant of Les Dawson and Charlotte Bronte. In his defence, he refuses to like Blur.