Coal mining and its brutal warfare with the innards of the earth has offered an inexhaustible seam of opportunity for writers. Edward Hogan draws upon it for a debut novel of ambitious substance and style, developed from two simple concerns. Why did the inhabitants of Blackmoor, a Derbyshire mining village, abandon their homes? And what were the circumstances of villager Beth Cartwright's death?
The novel opens as Beth's son Vincent is entering his teens. Vincent lacks sources of information on his early years. His father George is unforthcoming, and Vincent must deal with more pressing issues. He is a sensitive boy, enthusiastic about ornithology: a ready-made victim for bullies at his school.
Readers have an easier time than Vincent does. An omniscient narrator flips obligingly back and forth to re-enact the village's downfall and Beth's demise. Beth was albino; insufficient pigment left her skin uncannily white and caused an eye tremor. Following Vincent's birth, she suffered an unusually severe post-natal depression and her disturbed behaviour, coupled with her ghostly appearance, prompted the villagers to shun her. Simultaneously, the village started to be plagued by "firedamp" – explosive emissions of methane from abandoned pit shafts. The villagers linked these fiery underworld emanations with Beth's eccentricities and began to believe that she had cursed them.
Hogan's split time-frame is combined with multiple narrative perspectives which enable him to dig deep into his characters. He is aided by writing which is charged with a bite and passion harking back to his Northern forebears: DH Lawrence, most obviously, with a passing touch, perhaps, of Charlotte Brontë. His figurative language is neatly imaginative. When George thinks of Beth's mental state after her breakdown, he reflects, "the drugs coated her like a comorant in an oil slick".
Inevitably, there will be weaknesses in a novel that aims this high. At times it can be difficult to see Beth as much more than a victim of exotic medical conditions – a fuller account of her earlier life and courtship might have remedied this. As for George, his isolated acts of aggression do not fully cohere with the stubborn aloofness that defines him. Such cavils aside, Hogan is a clearly a writer to watch.Reuse content