The myths of this valley are timeless and modern: a river spirit is evoked in “Waddington” while an urban legend going by the name of Crustyman slides into two stories set almost two decades apart. The tattooed war veteran in “Field Mouse”, as exotically and cantankerously strange as Charles Dickens’s Magwitch, is the object of fascination, and an unlikely companion, for two overlooked children. In the final story, “Sick of Sunsets”, Clarke finally dares to let us experience something like hope – but not before he has put its narrator Gemma through any number of ugly travails.
This is a novel about belonging. The pressure to leave the valley, to find something – anything – somewhere else, is held in tension with the urge to return to its struggling hair salons and gloomy rains, its hillside ruins that resemble “the beginnings of a misspelled word”, where you face the inevitable penalties for your disloyalty. The hollow in the land is a zone of wrong decisions and deaths by misadventure. It’s only 10 miles long but it stretches to fit your life, binding the generations together even as it pulls them apart. You must take these characters as you find them. Without pulling punches or closing his eyes to anything, Clarke makes it possible to do that, in a novel full of insight, empathy and wry laughter.