This story of grief, guilt and loss set against the wildness of the Peak District is a book to read slowly in order to savour the atmosphere created by award-winning author Berlie Doherty. I sat down to read it as the rain hammered down outside, appropriately harmonising with the emotion that pours from the narrative, and couldn’t tear myself away.
Thirteen year-old Carl is staying in a remote holiday cottage with his photographer mother and teacher father, high in a Peak District landscape dominated by the bleating of sheep and cries of birds. However, this is not the carefree family holiday that many will have enjoyed in this wild, natural setting; it is apparent from the start that the family have travelled to enable Carl to recover from the fatal accident in which his childhood best friend, Jack, has died. Unsurprisingly, for such a gifted writer, Berlie Doherty conveys the sense of a family struggling to come to terms with grief with immense insight and sympathy. This is a realistic and three-dimensional portrayal, with both parents depicted trying everything they can to bring their son back from the edge of despair, and Carl understanding and appreciating his parents’ efforts but unable to tear himself out of the deep well of loss into which he has been plunged.
The landscape is integral to the atmosphere of the story and the incorporation of folklore in the form of a ghost story about the Lost Lad, Joseph, and his dog who haunt the area, watching over lost souls in the hills gives depth to Carl’s disorientation and dissociation from the life that he has known before. With voices in the wind, elusive figures in the corners of his eye and a house that creaks and breathes with former lives, we explore Carl’s sense of unreality. I found that the descriptions of his mother’s artistic landscape photography, utilising changes of light to create shadowy images, beautifully depicted the way that Carl is struggling to emerge from the gloom of bereavement and the part that he feels he might have contributed to his friend’s death. For as the story develops, we are given a glimpse into the gradual loss that changing friendships can cause during the teenage years when children moved on from shared childhood interests and perhaps forge new friendship groups. Juxtaposed against Carl’s loss is that of peripatetic shepherdess April, who is working on the neighbouring farm and has her own reasons for wandering the hills and feeling the presence of the Lost Lad. As they begin to understand each other’s need to be lifted from their despair, hope glimmers for acceptance and recovery.
This is not a “spooky” ghost story but rather a breath-taking exploration of the ambiguous nature of grief, suffused with understanding and imagination. Although this book is written for a readership of 11+, I think that its sensitive portrayal of a family overcoming a devastating loss holds valuable messages for all readers. The imagery of the crows, used so powerfully here, has prompted me to re-read a book which was given to me by a dear friend following a family bereavement, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, which I would also recommend to older readers.
I am most grateful to UCLan publishing and Antonia Wilkinson for sending me a proof copy of The Haunted Hills in exchange for my honest opinion.
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