The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon
With The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon (Solaris Books, 2011), I’m breaking one of my house rules. Usually I start from the first book in a series, but this comes to me out of sequence. I was caught out by the serendipity of reviewing the second in a series by an author unknown to me. So here’s me catching up on the first, all the better to enjoy the third when it arrives on my doorstep (hopefully later this month). You should read the review of Silent Voices first because it discusses my thoughts both on how to classify the series as fantasy or horror, and on a series set more or less on my home turf. As a Geordie, I admit to having some passing acquaintance with Northumberland — it’s a kind of vassal state to Newcastle.
So here I find myself back on this strange sink housing estate, supposedly set somewhere between Newcastle and Morpeth, this time with a different cast of characters but with the same theme. Namely, that in and around the Needle — an abandoned tower block — there’s a link to a locus through which human dreams can be externalised and an ancient power persists. Let’s pause for a moment. When do we consider a living area a sink estate? It’s not simply a loss of physical integrity with buildings dilapidated and covered with graffiti. It’s also a kind of moral blight where the residents have given up hope for a better life and no longer respect themselves or their environment. The first signs are fly tipping and regular fires where the rubbish is torched by bored kids. There’s vandalism, drug abuse and muggings, and even the authorities think the best way forward would be to pull it down and start again from scratch — a kind of redemption through destruction. Put another way, the police think it too dangerous to enter unless in numbers and the residents cannot act in their own defence: that would require something to galvanise them, to unite them so that common action became possible. In most cases, the place sinks into despair and often violent lawlessness.
Why focus on this? As a metaphor, think of the rechargeable battery. It absorbs energy and then gives it out according to need. So let’s hypothesise a supernatural phenomenon that exists in a geographical location. In early tribal times, a few individuals might pass by and sense the potential power. One or two might not affect the power significantly because, individually, they do not have much to add to the “battery”. Then along comes the Roman army and, with a ruthless directness, the soldiers take action to suppress local beliefs and any signs of local power. In building the Wall, they plough sacred groves and other sites of worship into the ground. But, as time passes, people begin to live in this one place and their lives pass with the usual balance of happiness and sadness. Such is the human condition. But with the recent accumulation of people in this estate, the “battery” has a larger group from which to charge itself. This should not be a problem except for the balance of negative energy. Now let’s suppose the “battery” is not passive, that it’s capable of directing the process to some extent. Since it experiences both positive and negative emotions, suppose it prefers neutrality if not a positive charge. Might it not decide to interfere in human affairs to collect more of the energy it prefers. The question would therefore become how such an intervention might be made and what price, if any, would be paid by the humans involved.
The core of the story is strong without the need for a supernatural element. Structurally, there are two strands. The first concerns a man who feels trapped as a carer. He didn’t ask for his wife to be injured in an accident, yet he now finds himself emotionally locked into the role of a practical nurse for a paraplegic woman. The second concerns a woman and her daughter aged fourteen. She didn’t ask for her husband to get involved in crime and, when it all went wrong, kill himself. When his creditors had finished, she had nothing and was forced to accept a flat in this sink estate. Because she was desperate for money, she borrowed from a loan shark and is now unable to repay. Both are sets of lives full of tragedy yet, perhaps, if the door to access the supernatural power could be opened, even just a touch, they might be saved. After all, life can be beautiful. People don’t have to live in pain. All they need is just a gentle push in the right direction.
Perhaps I’m just battle-hardened but I don’t find The Concrete Grove overly violent nor that horrific in the supernatural sense of the word. There’s a reasonably well-developed fantasy rationale which continues into Silent Voices (at least I now have a better understanding of the role of the hummingbirds) but it’s really only a counterpoint to the essentially human drama. As to the prose, this is a fine piece of writing, emotionally involving the reader in the problems of the key characters. There only a minor problem in the repetitiveness in explanation towards the end. Thematically, if you had to capture the question the book answers in a single sentence, it would look this this, “If the only way you could redeem a sink estate is by pulling it down, what would a person have to do to find redemption?” The answer is intriguing and well worth reading. The final book is called Beyond Here Lies Nothing — my copy is on the way.
The jacket artwork by Vincent Chong is pleasingly evocative.