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The Sacred Combe, Thomas Maloney

By Helena McNish, on 4 May 2017

Longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize 2017

Combe: Noun. A short valley or hollow on a hillside or coastline, especially in southern England.

This is the word that I learned from reading this novel, so it seemed a good place to start. This novel, the first from Thomas Maloney, is one that is perennially concerned with place. From the title onwards, the reader is always aware of the space that the narrator, the young, distant and bespectacled Sam Browne, finds himself. The chapters deal out a series of snapshots of the narrator’s life, defined by where he was at the time: London is a grey town of loss, the Yorkshire Dales are wild and (naturally enough) unable to provide solace, the titular combe is a hermitage of life and growth.

And it’s never just the setting – the narrator repeatedly sets the scene through the weather too, providing the reader with a Great British tour of weather, throughout the bitter Winter onwards. Just as with place, the weather is a constant companion to the reader, and there’s never a point where they don’t know what it’s doing outside.

The novel is unique (in my reading at least), in that it beautifully blends the gothic with the romantic, the domestic and the sublime. Maloney’s use of the combe itself as a character allows his narrator to begin a chapter facing through a library window onto the garden, and end at the peak of the hill looking out into the combe, with just a walk to separate them. Throughout the story, the author returns to his device of the narrator’s journeys. The reader is first shown the narrator all but running away from the problem of his wife having left him, and he just keeps on moving from there. There’s a train journey, a drive and then an innumerable quantity of walks as the narrator tries to resolve his emotional turmoil and find the mysterious letter.

Returning to the use of the gothic, this is not The Castle of Otranto-style gothic, with ghosts and ghouls and enormous armoured helmets appearing by magic. If anything, this is Northanger Abbey as told by a divorcee. The reader is shown a dark and secretive house that the narrator finds himself working in, and he develops a series of questions that return again and again until their resolution. Who is the girl? What’s behind the door in the library? What is the Temple? What does the letter say? It is the slow unfolding of these questions, told with a wry smile, with bits and pieces of information being brought together over the course of the tale, that provides a level of delightful satisfaction to the reader.

Maloney’s calm and sympathetic tone throughout the novel humanises what could be a terribly dry affair. The narrator is searching for a letter in a library, after all. Fortunately, the frequent diversions and irregular characters make for a much more entertaining read than it might have been. This entertainment is lifted higher by the narrator’s sense of humour – he frequently breaks the fourth wall to directly address the reader, and is intensely aware of the book that he is writing.

In having the narrator employ humour as he tells his story, Maloney can portray Sam Browne as being a man struggling to cope with loss. On the surface, the self-references break up the story a little, and raise a smile or chuckle in the reader. But they smack of a man trying too hard to distract his audience from the fact that he is (initially at the very least) simply not dealing with the fact that his wife left him. Loss pervades this novel, with everyone in the house being defined by their sorrow and their grief, and it is this that makes it beautiful.

Jonathon Leech

The Sacred Combe is published by Scribe Books