Hollow Pike by James Dawson

The Young Adult debut of novelist James Dawson, Hollow Pike is several things. It is a school story, a village story, a witchcraft story, a murder story and a growing up story, amongst others. What it isn’t, really, is a bullying story, or a story about being different or not fitting in. These last themes are present, certainly, but rather than a morality tale about bullies getting their comeuppance or of misfits stealing the show, they are background detail, as matter of fact as the architecture, the colour of the characters’ hair, their accents or the subjects of the lessons they attend.

As a brief synopsis, Lis moves from Wales to live with her sister in a small North Yorkshire village after having problems with her “friend” at school. She is immediately drawn to both the three outcast weirdo students, and the popular (nasty) pretty girl who accepts her into her sycophantic entourage – warning her away from the other three (particularly one scary lesbian) in the process. The inevitable occurs with the “in crowd”, and Lis defects to the unpopular kids instead. After a shocking murder, weird and threatening things start to happen to Lis. In order to protect themselves, the friends embark on their own investigative work to find the killer.

Very much a show-don’t-tell kind of author, I found Dawson’s method of introducing characters unusual. In the early chapters, new people just appear and slot nearly into the narrative. It’s seamless and doesn’t break immersion by interrupting narrative with a background story or even a brief “Judy is Susan’s older sister, she has a son called Benjamin.”

There is something warmly familiar about the world and the characters that Dawson paints. The authenticity of the people and places is admirable. There were just two things in the whole novel which failed to wholly resonate with me – both of which say more about me than about Dawson or the village and inhabitants of Hollow Pike. Firstly, at least two characters have curly hair. I do not know curly hair. I cannot relate. I repainted these people with wavy hair instead. Secondly, at one point the main character imagines her future wedding dress. What? I am told that real girls do actually think like that, albeit perhaps with a dose of knowing irony as Lis appears to here, but I was trying to identify with her, and this is the only time I struggled. Clearly I am not a real girl.

Dawson is very knowing with his references – the students are studying The Crucible which both primes the reader to think about  persecution and the idea that witches – well – aren’t, and gives the characters a handy framework to appropriately and believably discuss what’s going on. Also, I had been pondering similarities with Mean Girls, and then the friends all watch the film together. Neat!

The authenticity of the place and people meant that I genuinely cared about what happened, and the sudden change of pace towards the end was absolutely necessary – it echoed how I felt about the urgency of resolution.

I invariably do always guess “whodunnit” simply by brute force. Once a crime has occurred, every time a character is mentioned I formulate a story to implicate them. So of course I guessed the culprit (as well as unfairly framing everyone else at the same time), but I was completely off the mark as to the reasons why. The outcome was quite satisfying. I love being so wrong with my correct guesses!

The book had me pondering my school days. The authenticity of the environment made it so easy to transport myself back. I surprised myself how much I managed to recall – I tend to block those years out as if they never occurred. I’m sure you’ll end up doing the same. I recommend this stop on Dawson’s book launch blog tour, which discusses this very thing from his perspective – “It Gets Better” style.

If you really don’t like high school settings (and this really is an authentic high school with all the hierarchy, nastiness and drama that entails) I would suggest you stick with it anyway. It’s worth it.

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