We all know one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But the artwork for Tim Major’s Hope Island is arrestingly gorgeous and, I’m delighted to report, the story it contains is equally so.
Burned-out TV news producer Nina Scaife’s partner, Rob, has walked out on her and their 14-year-old daughter, Laurie. Nina decides to take a much-needed sabbatical to break the news to Laurie by leaving the non-stop buzz of Salford MediaCity for a month to visit Rob’s parents at their home on the beautiful and idyllic Hope Island, off the coast of Maine in the States.
For Laurie, Hope Island is an idyllic place. She’s visited every year for most of her short life and adores her grandparents. She’s also made friends with the younger island dwellers. With its stunning views of the endless Atlantic and village vibe, Hope Island – total population 79 – promises to be the escape Nina needs, in-laws notwithstanding, to recharge and reconnect with Laurie, your typical headphones-in-ears teen who appears to have a much closer relationship with her father.
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But (oh, don’t you just love a “but”!) for Nina, things aren’t so simple. For a start, her relationship with her in-laws is fraught, particularly with mother-in-law Tammy. They are virtual strangers, having only met on a handful of painfully polite occasions, and the subtext of Nina and Rob having never married runs deep: Tammy doesn’t view Nina as a true member of the family. Secondly, the island is so small that one can easily imagine blinking and the rest of the community knowing about it. There’s no WiFi and inadequate 3G, and for a woman whose career has always come first – sometimes before Laurie – it’s painful. The team back at North West Tonight will have to cope without her. Mostly though, there is something seriously off-kilter about the place… and this is where the creepy fun lies.
Their exhausting journey is peppered with complications and when they arrive, Nina almost crashes the unfamiliar Chrysler she’s driving to avoid a child standing in the road. The ever-present sea begins to act as a vessel for Nina’s fears, and the relief she should be feeling fails to materialise, and she can’t even blame the jet-lag – it soon becomes more than apparent that something’s up on Hope Island.
Put children behaving weirdly aside for a moment and we have another strange thing to contend with. The island is home to The Sanctuary, an artists’ colony populated by a group called the Siblings and boasting Edward Hopper among its alumni. Its heyday is long gone, but the Siblings’ plan is to make it prominent once more. There Nina meets Clay, an artist whose installation involves recording silence. He takes her to an underground shell midden, where she experiences something that transcends language. Against this background, Nina makes a discovery and things start to become even more off-kilter than before (“This trip hasn’t panned out as I’d hoped,’ Nina says, at one point. Laurie’s laughing reply: ‘What were you expecting – Disneyland?”)
Intelligent and with a warm, beating heart at its core, Hope Island is that breed of novel that transcends genre definition. There’s so much packed into it that it’s hard to know where to start. Actually, scrap that, I do. Let’s start with creepy kids, that rich, fertile trope that never fails to chill adult audiences. Hope Island is literally overrun by the terrifying little things and even though it’s so wrong, it feels oh-so-right. What’s more terrifying is that Laurie – a fierce, bright girl – is not immune to their behaviour, and it’s superbly executed by Major.
That we are on an island and a tiny one at that (with no means of escape and a community pretty much closed to incomers) heightens the tension. The Sanctuary and its bohemian occupants are a mystery to workaholic Nina, whose journalistic curiosity refuses to stand down. And all of this is done fantastically well; Major has made perfect narrative choices.
But to say it’s all about the superbly controlled plot would be wrong. Don’t come to it expecting all-out horror, or weird, or fantastical – although (and I realise this is a contradiction) it is all of those things, and more. For this reader, that the novel is small-scale and personal, providing an intimate view of a mother-daughter relationship, means it is touching and memorable. Nina’s guilt over leaving Laurie’s parenting to her now absent partner was so sharply written it was painful (in a very good way). Her relationship with her daughter is as tight and anxious as a coiled spring, and their ongoing battle is beautifully pitched. That Laurie is Nina’s world is never under doubt, but the journey they both must go on to find the truth of it could not have been more finely written; that it entwines with what’s happening on the island is even better. Is Nina having a nervous breakdown or experiencing hallucinations, or is it the island exerting some sort of force? The question twists and turns at the centre of the narrative for good reason, giving the novel unsettling momentum.
I was gripped from page one to the very final sentence. The portrayal of Nina’s emotional pain is soaringly honest and had me hooked from the get-go. In truth, I could have written this review using one word only – brilliant – and it would be enough. Hope Island is a claustrophobic, paranoid and exhilarating read.
Hope Island by Tim Major is published by Titan Books.