Gary McMahon – The Concrete Grove review
As I sit down to write this review in mid-August, 2011, the riots that have erupted across Britain over the past week have begun to subside, the energies that drove them dissipating in the face of a coherent police response and that most British of demotivators, the weather. But the anger, social exclusion, vanishing economic possibilities, lack of faith in police relations and sense of political betrayal that initially produced this eruption among Britain’s poorest urban communities remain.
Gary McMahon’s The Concrete Grove plumbs the fertile ground of such forgotten areas, its dark tale derived as much from the existential horror of hopeless or wasted lives as the natural and supernatural forces that prey upon them.
Lana and Hailey, single mother and daughter, have been forced into a life on an estate – the eponymous Concrete Grove – which surrounds the Needle, a derelict and sinister Brutalist block of flats. The Needle pierces the heart of a community racked with poverty, desperation and accompanying social issues like drug abuse, violence and entrenched petty criminals with a penchant for cruelty. One such ambitious thug is Monty Bright, a loan shark obsessed with the history of the Grove. Monty takes an interest in Lana and Hailey, using Lana’s debt to him as leverage while he tries to understand the growing connection between Hailey and the Grove.
A few roads over, just outside the estate, a middle-aged man named Tom supports and cares for his bed-bound and clinically obese wife. Tortured by his own demons and a sense of being trapped in his own life, Tom finds himself drawn to Lana and Hailey and by extension involved in whatever plans Bright and the Grove have in store.
The Concrete Grove’s most interesting conceit is its fusion of old mythologies with present realities. The backstory describes how the Needle and surrounding estate were built over an ancient Pagan site of nature-worship. The power of the old Grove remains but it has been corrupted by the pathologies of the human community that now surrounds it. Forces bleed out into our world, and not all of them are as ambivalent as those the Pagans once worshipped.
Although the actions of McMahon’s characters may not always convince – Hailey in particular makes a few leaps of faith and illogic that I struggled with – and Tom is one of those frustratingly frustrated middle-aged characters whose internal monologue is dominated by a desire to fuck anything with a blouse and a pulse, they are on the whole a sympathetic bunch who draw us into the worlds he has built around the iconic Needle. The thematic juxtaposition on which the novel is based is maintained throughout: England’s past and present, the powers produced by suburban sickness and health, all revolving around by the ambiguous forces of nature. The novel’s conclusion reflects this state of thematic balance well, although it’s also possible to read in a much more traditional horror motif.
The Concrete Grove itself clearly has more stories to tell. By the book’s close it remains a source of substantial mystery, and the desperate poverty and anti-social behaviour that surrounds it remains unaddressed and ignored by the wider world.
384pp paperback, published by Solaris Books.
[This review originally published in Vector #268, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. This version of the review precedes the published version being reformatted for printing but is otherwise identical.]