(2021) Brian Catling, Coronet, £20, hrdbk, 257pp, ISBN 978-1-529-36643-3
Satire…. It’s a funny old thing, isn’t it? Or is it?
I was reminded of the above when I started reading Hollow, which has been described as a “dark humour fantasy”.
You don’t need to know that. To begin with, the story is a quest story.
Hollow is a strange, strange story filled with allegory, weird people and weirder creatures. The plot is not particularly unusual, at least to begin with, as a quest story. Barry Follett is the leader of a group of seven mercenaries who have been tasked by the High Church to collect and then deliver a new Oracle to the Monastery of the Eastern Gate after their old one has died. If left without an Oracle, the monks are prone to attack in the unending war between the worlds of the living and the dead.
None of the mercenary group are particularly pleasant, and this is indicated by Barry killing one of them in the first chapter. But stranger still are the people and creatures Barry and his co-workers meet along the way. Dominic, a young monk who has mysteriously lost his voice, makes a pilgrimage to see surreal paintings, believing they reveal the empire's fate; a local woman called Mad Meg hopes to free and vindicate her jailed son and becomes the leader of the most unexpected revolution; and the abbot of the monastery, influential as he is, seeks to gain even more power in this world and the next. Even the Oracle is odd, having to be kept alive by the mercenaries feeding it bone marrow and telling it their darkest sins.
The story is vividly imaginative, the plot straightforward, but this is a book whose weirdness may remain with you for a long time afterwards. Comparisons with the works of Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali are to be expected and I suspect totally deliberate, as Catling is a visual artist as well as a novelist. Hollow is definitely not for everyone, and the un-lovableness of the characters may repel as much as endear, but the dense vocabulary and complex world place this one above the morass of mainstream novels.
I liked the visuality of the dialogue and was interested to see where the story went, especially as I had no idea myself as to what could happen next. But all of the dark grotesque imagery, as memorable as it was, will not be enough to impress everyone.
This one will polarise views, I think. Mind you, I was warned. The publisher has said to “prepare to be challenged, intrigued and even revolted”, and for what it is worth, I agree. Hollow will be liked as much as disliked. Like much work that is art, it will not appeal to everyone, but for many it will be memorable. In that sense, I think that Hollow says as much about the author as it does the book.
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