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what lies beneath
on 18 July 2008
A novel set in a mining village during the 1980's might lead you to expect something rather predictable; gritty northerners, trouble down't pit and plenty of politics. But with his first novel Hogan has created something far more interesting and unworldly. The cover gives some sense of that; the ethereal glow of the dress and the pale skin beneath it, not to mention that this is a woman at the centre of the story. The strange circumstances of her death are the secret that haunts this story, and the efforts of her son to uncover that past provide the second strand of Hogan's narrative. But the title is important too. The village of Blackmoor is as much a character in this book as any of its inhabitants, and just as John Burnside created such a haunting presence with Innertown in his recent novel Glister, Hogan skillfully creates a myth around another landscape eaten away by industry.
Beth has always been marked out as different. Born 'a long shot' on the 29th February 1956 'the doctor noticed her extreme pallor and that extreme movement of the eyes. The pupils swayed slowly from side to side, or else trembled like a clenched fist'. Her albinism has always made others keep their distance, but George Cartwright becomes fascinated by her at school, almost stalking her, and eventually these two outcasts are married. After the birth of their son, Vincent, Beth suffers from severe post-natal depression and the strains on their marriage are only exacerbated by the events in Blackmoor.
After the collapse of the mining industry Blackmoor is a village in decay. What Hogan avoids is the '...romanticized idea of coalmining towns, informed mainly by the funny parts of the film Kes and repeats of Ridley Scott's Hovis advertisment on The Best One Hundred Adverts of All Time.' The men still frequent the Miner's Clubs, searching for a new purpose in life whilst the mine below them fills with water and dangerous gases. The Cartwright's lawn seems to be hot and other villagers experience sightings of blue flames and noxious air. The politics of the novel come when the villagers unite to tackle British Coal as they begin to question the safety of the very ground beneath their feet. Hogan shows with subtlety the fragility of community when the roles that people have previously played in it are ended or brought into question. People are quick to snap or look for blame and both George, but especially his wife Beth find themselves on the wrong end of the villagers glances.
Hogan's writing is filled with well observed detail and idiomatic language. The sense of the surrounding landscape is strong throughout as well as the struggles of the characters who inhabit it.
'Tell you what, you look outside and you just think, 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 tw*t to set another bloody village on. We've been here for, what, a century? It's bugger all. Just a graze. Like a kid scratching around in the mud. We don't mean anything to it.'
As Beth tries to explain to an outsider 'everything here is used or used up or burnt out'. She will be the one to absorb so much of the poison and her fragilities are rendered with a surprising vigour. In the aftermath, Vincent's struggles to grow up and his slow discovery of the past are very touching. With such an impressive début, Hogan may be one to watch.