Map of Blue Book Balloon

12 March 2018

Review - The Hollow Tree by James Brogden

Cover design by Julia Lloyd
The Hollow Tree
James Brogden
Titan Books, 13 March 2018
PB, 478pp

I'm grateful to Lydia at Titan Books for an advance copy of The Hollow Tree.

Mary in the oak tree
Cold as cold can be
Waiting for the sky to fall
Who will dance with me?

Shortly before the end of the Second World War, a young woman's body is found hidden in a tree in the Lickey Hills, south of Birmingham. Who is she and how did she get there? Who did dance with Mary?

Theories grow up to fill the vacuum.

She was a witch, killed in some sinister ritual.

She was a foreign spy.

She was a sex worker, murdered by a client one dark night.

Theories, but no answers.

Until Rachel Cooper suffers a horrific accident, losing her left hand. As she makes her recovery, she begins to feel things with that missing hand. Is this just normal phantom pain following an amputation? Or more? As she rebuilds her life, Rachel, and her husband Tom, are drawn into the mystery of Mary - of all the Marys. Some sort of boundary has been crossed, and the uncanny is loose. Can it be contained? Can Rachel find out what happened to Mary, and save her from the in-between world that she senses with her missing hand?

This book shares the modern Birmingham setting of Brogden's Hekla's Children, published last year, which similarly brought supernatural weirdness and paradox to trouble and perplex - and menace - the present. It's eerily effective. Rachel, the main protagonist, is capable, and coping well with her loss. Brogden grounds her and Tom in a believable relationship, furnished with slightly controlling in-laws and family secrets. The effect on Rachel of her injury is explored, as well as the difference it makes to Tom and both drive the story in ways that only become clear as it unfolds.

At the heart of that story are three women, and three acts of male violence. The unfortunate Mary is, effectively, challenged to be one of those victims - take your pick. She is, though, more than a victim. She is just as resolute and self-sufficient as Rachel and together the two women defy death (several deaths) and whatever rules in that shadowy Otherworld - even when this puts others in peril. It is a fantasy, but a fantasy with the drive and menace of a thriller, as the combatants duel across the city and across time for high stakes.

I was intrigued by the way that Brogden handles possibilities in the book. It is a very quantum horror story! What really happened? Well, that depends on how you look and what you want to see. What happened in the past doesn't stay in the past, and the present, though built on that past, filters through the layers of time to affect the past. It's never completely sure how fixed this is - what would Rachel find if she went back to visit a certain gravestone in a Birmingham churchyard at the end of the book? - and that's part of the mystery and appeal. Hekla's Children played a particular game with time and causality which wasn't apparent almost till the end: in this book it's much clearer what is going on, with parallel narratives for the three Marys, but even so Brogden does bowl a couple of googlies that I didn't see coming at all. And the pace of the action means that you don't stop to think too deeply about the central plot device (which might otherwise make your head hurt at least a little bit...)

An immersive, compelling fantasy thriller that kept me up till the early hours. Recommended.

For more information on the book, see the publisher's website here. You can buy The Hollow Tree from your friend local bookshop, or here, here or here (and no doubt other places besides).

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