Walking on Air and Fire

The Hollow Ground: A Novel, by Natalie S. Harnett (Macmillan)

In Natalie S. Harnett’s The Hollow Ground, the characters attempt to make peace with themselves and each other while living—both literally and figuratively—over a great emptiness. The setting for this novel is a group of former coal-mining towns. The mines have closed, but the coal still in the ground has caught fire and has been burning for years. These underground fires can render playgrounds and basements literally too hot to walk across; they produce carbon monoxide, a constant threat for those living in these towns; and, as coal burns away, great holes develop underground, undermining the foundations of homes and sometimes collapsing, taking homes and lives with them. Whole cities are being destroyed in a major eminent domain project involving the digging of enormous trenches in hopes of ending the fires’ spread.

This is where we meet our narrator, Brigid Howley. Brigid is in her early teens and her life has been completely destabilized. Her favorite aunt has died in a sink-hole collapse in the family’s backyard, the family’s home has been condemned, and they now live in a run-down local hotel on temporary assistance. All the adults in her life—mother, father, paternal grandmother—are at odds with one another, and when Brigid’s family move in with her grandmother, her life grows less stable, not more.

Brigid’s father, Adrian, is a seldom-employed former miner, who lost the use of one arm in a mine collapse. Her mother, Dolores, was left at an orphanage after her father remarried—although the couple chose to raise her younger brother as their own. Brigid’s grandmother (whose mother also grew up in an orphanage) is the second wife of a man who lost his “true loves,” his first wife and children, in flash flooding caused by a mine collapse. Everyone, including the children has learned to keep their feelings and desires well hidden because, as Brigid tells us several times, the easiest way of losing something is to let others know you want it.

Given this bleak setting and contentious cast, I admit to having a hard time really getting going with The Hollow Ground. The first third or so just seemed like an onslaught of unpleasant people being unpleasant with each other. But that changed as Brigid began to develop a friendship of her own and to create a (small) life for herself outside of her family. She still spends much of her time observing the adults around her, but she also becomes more of a girl: not completely jaded, experiencing a great many things for the first time.

If you’re looking for mindless (or just comforting) entertainment, you’ll find this book deeply unsatisfactory. On the other hand, if you’re willing to fight your way through the unpleasantness, you’ll find yourself deeply engaged with Brigid, admiring her character, if not always enjoying her story.

May 15 2014 06:10 am | Uncategorized

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