A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It’s a fairly safe bet that the nice people at the Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board have no plans to send Barry Gornell a complimentary calendar this year, because his debut novel, The Healing of Luther Grove, has done for that beautiful corner of the British Isles what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen …
Luther Grove is a sick man – both in body and spirit. Eccentric, reclusive and unsociable, he lives in a bothy in the hills above the Highland community of Milton, alone except for his ailing bees and some very dark thoughts.
His solitude is broken however when John and Laura Payne move into the neighbouring property – an arrival Luther has been expecting because he watched the conversion of the house, formerly his house, from a simple lochan-side cottage into an uber-glossy, cutting-edge Grand Designs dwelling, all glass and decking and air conditioning, designed to insulate its occupants from the real world.
The Paynes’ marriage is fragile. They hope that the move to the Highlands, to a supposedly ‘simpler’ life, will give them a fresh start, but they’ve reckoned without the gothic presence of Luther, watching, brooding and scheming from his cottage in the trees …
The Healing of Luther Grove could have been a straightforward ‘city slickers’ -v- ‘psychotic yokel’ story à la Deliverance (which is, indeed, referenced in the book), but Barry Gornell is a much more subtle and skilled writer than that, and what we actually have is a surprisingly nuanced picture of a basically loving but dysfunctional marriage and a man terminally damaged by overwhelming tragedy.
Like all good storytellers, Gornell reveals the back stories of his characters vignette by vignette – gradually cranking up the tension between Luther Grove and John Payne and at the same time playing with our perceptions of them. Luther, in particular, keeps slipping out of focus, never turning out to be quite who or what we think he is.
Laura and the couple’s daughter Molly are the pivots around which the story turns, but it’s made clear from their very first encounter with Luther that they are in no danger from him: it’s John and his obnoxious brother Frank who are destined to be on the receiving end of Luther’s cold-blooded and calculated vengence. The dénouement, when it arrives, is beautifully choreographed and superbly well written but was, I felt, the least successful part of the novel. It’s not the fault of the writing or the writer, it’s just that – as in the cult 1950’s film Them – what you can imagine is infinitely worse than anything you can be shown or told.
It’s a crackingly good first novel though: the prose is pared down to the bone, the characterization is spot-on and the narrative gallops along at a tremendous pace without ever getting breathless.
And that curious title? Let’s just say that ‘healing’ can take many forms …
Freight Books, Glasgow. 2012. ISBN; 978-1-908754-02-8. 193pp.