I haven't been this excited by someone's writing since I first read Margaret Atwood when I was 18. I had already loved and reviewed Blackmoor when I opened The Hunger Trace with all the trepidation that one has when confronting a second work: will it live up to the expectations set up by the first? A resounding "Yes" in this case.
The Hunger Trace has similarities with Blackmoor in that the narrative traces how the events of the past continue to shape the lives of the central characters. We meet Louisa, a rather embittered middle-aged loner, who lives both with and for her birds of prey; and Maggie, the young widow who battles to save her wildlife park inherited from her older husband David. Maggie has also inherited David's difficult teenage son Christopher. The novel opens with a hilarious scene when the two women try to catch a herd of ibex, cornering them them with trolleys and an old van in a supermarket car park. The escaped animals encapsulate Maggie's difficulties. The wildlife park and its occupants are out of her control.
Louisa is a disgruntled neighbour, hard to reach and hard to help. She blows hot and cold for both Maggie and the damaged Christopher and the flashbacks reveal the hold the park and the late David have on her. Louisa's character is gently teased out by events and we gradually come to understand why she cannot bring herself to either embrace Maggie's friendship or leave.
Hogan's great strength is his characterisation. Christopher is given the irritating verbal ticks of the teenager, and is, erm, irritating as a result. He makes you want to both laugh and weep at the same time. It is a triumph of Hogan's writing that despite the reader's natural desire to shake the boy, in the end he is a sympathetic character, greater than the sum of the parts of unintentional comedian and solipsistic drama queen. Maggie on the other hand is loyal and forgiving and frankly too damn good to be true. Hogan is amazing when writing about women (Beth in Blackmoor is unforgettable and Louisa here is quite something too) so this is a rare slip in an otherwise first rate novel.
I love Hogan's use of detail:
...Louisa looked at the pictures of the village on the pub wall. She enjoyed the way each photograph, going backwards in time, stripped away more of the human traces: roads lost their stripes and curbs; the barn conversions became barns again, and eventually the pub itself disappeared, replaced by woodland.
In a novel that begins with empty spaces, early morning roads and car parks, and the acres of the parkland, Hogan reverses the process he describes above. He layers people and events with the complicated interplay of personalities and past baggage onto the greens and greys of the opening spaces. The smallest things can become significant: a fence post, a field drain, a missing ibex. It is an ethereal novel of smoke and mist and foliage and feathers and it would appear a contradiction that the characters at the end stand forward, strongly lit, and are not at all subsumed by the detail. If a Pre-Raphaelite painting could be turned into a prose style then this is how it would read.
Hogan's writing pulsates with the dual quality of sucess in the now and the feeling that despite the achievements of his first two works he is doing this with only yet a tentative grasp on his pen. Blackmoor and The Hunger Trace , remarkable though they are, feel like the start, like he has barely realised how good he is yet. What heights he will reach when he does!