Written by Barry Gornell — With half of this year’s Booker shortlist coming from small presses, now seems like the perfect time to see what they have to offer the crime fan. Glasgow-based Freight books boasts an eclectic list of high quality fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and they’ve discovered a crime writer of rare sensitivity and great promise in Barry Gornell. His debut, The Healing of Luther Grove, was released last month and is already garnering high praise.
Like countless well-heeled urbanites before them, John and Laura Payne believe that a move to the countryside can smooth away all of the problems in their lives – and they have plenty. They arrive at their newly-finished, Grand Designs-worthy home in the Scottish Highlands, complete with oak floors and glass walls and a view across a tranquil lochan, only to find the rural idyll isn’t quite as secluded as they hoped. That delapidated cottage at the bottom of their garden, the one they believed couldn’t possibly be habitable, is occupied by taciturn local, Luther Grove.
Luther has watched the building work progress at the old Macpherson place, irritated by the noise and the disturbance of his peaceful routine, and by the statement the new house makes. He has already taken a dislike to John Payne too, this brash alpha male with his vulgar 4×4 and beautiful wife, who bears a striking resemblence to a woman Luther once knew. He’s a troubled man, trying to live out his remaining years in quiet isolation, eating what he hunts, cutting wood from his forest, keeping bees for company and eschewing human contact.
John and Laura have their own demons, held at bay, unacknowledged but lingering, and the inevitable clash between John and Luther in a boundary dispute only widens the cracks in their relationship. She wants to reach a peaceful accommodation but he thinks Luther can be bought off, and swiftly the situation escalates into outright aggression, exacerbated by the arrival of John’s volatile brother Frank. As the Payne men plot, Laura finds herself increasingly drawn to Luther. He is everything her husband isn’t – still and self-contained, a kind soul with a gruff exterior. When John realises where his wife’s sympathies lie his determination to best Luther only increases. The story builds inexorably towards a brutal denouement and nobody escapes completely unscathed, as loyalties are put to the test and old secrets are forced into the open.
This is the perfect book for anyone who thinks Escape to the Country might be painting a rather rose-tinted view of rural life, a menace-suffused antidote to all of those twee property shows. Gornell presents the countryside as red in tooth and claw, dangerous, dirty and concealing currents powerful enough to destory lives in a heartbeat. Luther Grove is the kind of character who stays with you long after you’ve finished reading, a fairytale woodsman in the modern world, and there is a Gothic feel to the story, with its eerie woodland setting and beautiful lochan, beehives, dead rabbits and secluded caves. The violence, when it inevitably comes, is raw and elemental, and Gornell makes you dread every trembling step towards it, creating a pervasive sense of unease which neatly undermines the comfortable setting.
The Healing of Luther Grove is an outstanding debut and Barry Gornell writes with an assurance rare in first novels. If you’re a fan of Nicci French or Sophie Hannah this book is well worth looking out – an intense and claustrophic dismantling of the middle class dream.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars