The Healing of Luther Grove by Barry Gornell

Luther_grove2.270Highland Gothic

All books have a genealogy. Barry Gornell’s debut novel The Healing of Luther Grove has a particularly strong parentage: the forest set class struggle of Robin Jenkins’ The Cone Gatherers mixed with the intense, grief impassioned sexuality of DH Lawrence.

The eponymous Luther Grove lives alone in his simple Highlands home, hunting and growing everything that he eats. But this is no idyllic vision of country life – Grove is swiftly falling apart, and the arrival of a young family acts as a catalyst for his breakdown. Laura Payne moves into the house next door with her husband John and their infant daughter. Their house is modern, custom built, and makes Luther’s cottage look like a shack. Luther and Laura have an immediate connection, though it takes a while for Laura to understand exactly why. Relations between Luther and John, though, are strained at best – and the arrival of John’s irresponsible, alcoholic brother Frank adds a spark to the kindling. The novel switches between Luther’s and Laura’s point of view, building to a terrible but inevitable disaster. It’s a short and fast-paced book, and to reveal any more might give away vital plot details – and it would be a shame to do that, as the gradual unveiling of Luther’s and Laura’s histories is one of the joys of the story.

The Healing of Luther Grove has been described as a thriller and a crime novel. Although it is thrilling and several crimes are committed, it feels restrictive to class it in this way. If anything, this is a wonderful example of Modern Gothic fiction. Many of the classic Gothic tropes are present: the uncanny doppelgänger, the Byronic antihero, the damsel in distress, the sexually violent tyrant, the angelic child, the implicit threat of nature, the dark secret in the attic (or in this case, the cellar), and the sense that ghosts from the past can never be escaped. Looking at that list, it may seem that the novel could tip over into melodrama – but the restraint in Gornell’s style keeps this in check. There are a few moments which, if read alone, could be a little over-the-top, but every dramatic moment is earned by what comes before. And there’s a reason that we keep coming back to these tropes: sex and violence and revenge have always been a part of human behaviour, and always will be. Like all the best Gothic fiction, this novel has a modern setting, but feels timeless.

In a publishing climate when some new writers are in a rush to get their first novel published, it is refreshing to read such a polished, carefully written debut. Gornell’s prose is a joy to read: effortless, considered and atmospheric. The novel’s incredibly tight focus – not just tight, but almost claustrophobically small – is the perfect way to examine the catastrophe that swiftly follows. Every word earns its place, and it feels like every sentence has been carefully honed.

The novel isn’t perfect: brother Frank’s villainy can slip into the cartoonish, and there’s the odd overwrought metaphor (such as smoke described as “hell-born snow”). But these are minor quibbles in a piece of work that is enjoyable and admirable from beginning to end.

Velveteen Rabbit

The Healing of Luther Grove
Barry Gornell
Freight Books, rrp £8•99, 224pp