Publisher: John Murray Press
Publication Date: 31st October 2019
Well firstly, let us appreciate that front cover…..
I am writing this review having just closed Starve Acre after a chilling 24 hours.
I have just taken to Twitter to declare that this is hands down THE BEST book I’ve read all year, up there with the best books I’ve ever read in fact! (It is a very rainy July day as I write this, just to give you some time perception, this review will not go live until November because OF COURSE this book is going to be published on Halloween!). It is going to take a fabulous book to knock this one off my top spot I can tell you!
Richard and Juliette Willoughby move to Starve Acre, an isolated house on the moors after Richard’s father died and they inherit the property. Richard is reticent to move there given that his father’s behaviour became odder and odder until his final demise. Juliette on the other hand is keen to start a new life in a new house that she hopes to make her mark on and slot seamlessly into an idyllic village life.
Juliette falls pregnant with a very much planned for and anticipated baby, and when their son Ewan is born, life seems to be perfect.
However, (and isn’t there always a ‘however’!) there are strange things afoot not only in Starve Acre house but the field across the way. As Ewan grows from a loving toddler into an introverted 5 year old his behaviour becomes more and more outlandish. He spends time alone in the field opposite the house. A field in which the Stythwaite Oak used to stand, a huge oak tree dubbed ‘Old Justice’ for the fact it was used for public hangings in times gone by. The Stythwaite Oak is no longer standing in the field, and is only known through folklore and village tales. So why does Ewan say it’s ‘sometimes there, sometimes not’ and why does he stand in the field looking up into the empty sky as if he can see it?…
The unthinkable happens to Richard and Juliette when Ewan unexpectedly passes away (not a spoiler, this is known from page 1) and they are plunged into every parents living nightmare.
Six months after Ewan’s death, Juliette is consumed with grief, spending hour upon hour in Ewan’s bedroom, convinced she can feel his presence in the house still. Filling the room with mirrors, setting up audio equipment in the hope she will catch just a glimpse, just a whisper. She has sunk into a terrible depression, desperate to contact her baby.
Richard has taken an enforced sabbatical from his job as a history lecturer and has filled his time and mind with trying to find the roots of the old Stythwaite Oak. Setting up a tent against the ravages of winter and spending his days digging the earth and pushing Ewan from his thoughts. When he chances upon the skeleton of a hare during his dig, he brings it back to the house and unwittingly invites something else, something sinister, in.
As Juliette’s sister Harrie arrives at Starve Acre to try and pull Juliette out of her depression it becomes startlingly clear that she has plans to bring Ewan back into her life in whatever form that may be. She has been put into contact with a group of occultists known as The Beacons, headed up by a Mrs Forbes. But when she invites them to Starve Acre, will they really be able to help her or will they find something in the house they cannot fathom…?
The story flits back and forth in time between the present day and the days when Ewan’s behaviour starts to change. We are fed details of events of the time which build up a sinister picture of how life at Starve Acre was in the months leading up to Ewan’s sudden death. How he hurt a young girl at school, wilfully trapping her fingers in the door jamb. Starting a fire in the house and generally veering between the need for attention and the strong desire to be left alone.
But why is he reticent to head over to the field to play? Who’s voice does he say he can hear? Who is instructing him to behave in this odd way? Could this be down to an overactive imagination of a lonely child? The result of listening to village stories and myths? Of could something more foreboding be at play?
I cannot even begin to express how perfect this book is to me. An old house steeped in mystery, the claustrophobic nature of small village life. The intrinsic thread of unease, and strange occurrences running throughout, all shot through with the desperate loneliness of grief.
I found it fascinating that this married couple were dealing with their grief in such opposing ways. Juliette desperate to invite Ewan back into their lives. Grasping at straws, reading so much into little coincidental signs. And Richard, pushing thoughts of Ewan firmly away. Distracting himself with his quest to find the roots of the Stythwaite Oak, not truly the comprehending exactly what it is he is uncovering and unleashing.
The threads of Starve Acre history told through village folklore and Richards discovery of seventeenth century wood block prints, depicting scenes of Old Justice, were so sinister and unnerving. They really drew me in. You get catapulted back in time to the days when public hangings were ten a penny and strong beliefs were staunchly held true.
The deterioration in Ewan’s behaviour, the wilful hurt and destruction he seems hellbent on causing, juxtaposed with his apparent innate fear of the presence that is exerting power over him sent shivers down my spine!
To come to a point in life when you are scared of your own child and what they may do when your back is turned becomes a sad fact of daily life for Juliette. Whilst Richard tries hard to defend his son and keep everything as normal as possible.
I enjoyed the fact that although we know from the outset that Ewan has died, it is only in the final pages that the details surrounding his death are revealed. This is hanging over you as you read, but not in a negative way, more in a ‘I HAVE to find out what happened!’ way.
Andrew Michael Hurley’s writing is just stunning. I’ve not read The Loney or Devil’s Day but I will certainly be heading to them!
Starve Acre provided me with one perfect day of reading, for me it’s not just the brilliant writing and storyline, it was the complete reading experience as a whole. When I closed this book I had tingles up my spine and desperately wanted to speak to someone about what I had just read…..or just go right back and read it again!
Starve Acre has pride of place on my Forever Shelf and deservedly so.
Now is the perfect time for you to check it out. Grab a blanket and get settled for a perfect reading experience.
Thank you as always to the publisher for my review copy.
See you all soon.
Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx