|The Hollow Ground
by Natalie Harnett
|St. Martin’s Press
Reviewed by Maeve Murray
Praise for The Hollow Ground by Natalie Harnett is not in short supply. Some critics have even compared Harnett’s debut novel to To Kill a Mockingbird, claiming that her child protagonist, Brigid, is akin to Scout. While it is certainly true that both novels are told through the eyes of a young girl, there are some fundamental differences that can make a case against such a comparison. Nonetheless, The Hollow Ground should be considered an achievement in its own right.
Set in 1970’s eastern Pennsylvania, The Hollow Ground attempts to characterize its story as one displaced by the Centralia Mine Fires. Brigid and her family are of Irish descent; her father worked in the mines and her mother sews for a factory. Early on, we are introduced to a fair share of family drama and secrecy. Brigid is a mere observer in this and has little to offer the story, which drags for the first half of the novel. We are given ample details surrounding the family’s move to Gram’s house, the distaste between Mother and Gram, and the gloomy atmosphere which is the result of a blue collar town barely surviving after the mine fires began about ten years ago. Every day the very land they live on becomes more and more unstable, a defining metaphor for Brigid’s family.
Yet the ground doesn’t start shaking beneath them until nearly halfway through the novel, and this is a fault in the story. Prior to Brigid’s gruesome discovery in the mines, readers may find themselves wondering where the story is going, what the book is about, or even what Harnett’s intentions are. While exposition and scene-building are certainly appreciated, especially in such a strange place, there is a balance that Harnett didn’t quite level. For as in-depth and well-explained the family secrets are later in the novel, it is unnecessary to have as much exposition as Harnett includes in the first chapters.
Since Brigid’s home is quite literally crumbling under her feet, the land itself is a character in the novel, something that plays a pivotal role in the displacement of Brigid’s family and the ultimate separation of her parents. Brigid’s journey is not the righteous path to knowledge and realization that readers may expect from a novel with a child first-person protagonist. Instead, Brigid displays a malleable nature that shifts with the story’s twists and turns in plot; she is not so much intelligent as reactive to her environment. There is therefore less learning on Brigid’s part and more adapting. The relationship between character, setting, and plot is very tangled and dependent in Harnett’s novel, a characteristic that sets it apart from similar novels, To Kill a Mockingbird included.
In many ways, Brigid is complex, relatable, and very affected by her circumstances. Over time we see her loyalties shift, her opinions develop independently of her mother, and her actions becoming more bold. As her family rapidly falls apart, she learns that she too must move quickly into a new life if she is to survive. Her lessons are not about morals, but survival. In a scene midway through the novel, Brigid’s mother visits her hated stepmother in search of old belongings. The encounter quickly sours as a hideous secret is revealed, provoking anger from Brigid’s mother. Instead of an emotional response, Brigid is quick to offer her mother an item she came to the house for:
“Ma,” I said, slipping from my pocket the picture of her as a little girl. “You can stop looking. I got want you wanted. Here, Ma.” I handed her the photo. “Here you are.”
After receiving the picture, her mother calms and the chapter ends. We don’t hear about this encounter again until much later in the novel, a span of pages too long even for a delayed emotional reflection, which is not given to readers, either.
Again, however, I have to come back to Harnett’s pacing and plot choices. If the first half of the novel is a bit too slow, the ending is a bit too fast, and I have to question the purpose of the novel’s final scene. With her mother’s abandonment and father’s ensuing depression, neither parent is present. I’m puzzled by Harnett’s decision to lead Brigid’s father to death, even after his role as a father was otherwise compromised. The damage had already been done, but somehow that was not enough loss for Brigid. Readers may be even more jarred after reading the epilogue, which hastily gets to business correcting all the despair Brigid suffers throughout the novel, but not doing so wisely. The epilogue is too short and paced too quick to give reads a feeling of adequate story-telling rather than just a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The epilogue almost feels like Harnett’s way of apologizing for all the wrong done to Brigid, and that’s never a place an author wants to be.
Despite its flaws, The Hollow Ground has a realistic, likeable protagonist who offers a unique perspective on the family drama that unfolds. It was enjoyable, if not difficult to read, and I would recommend the novel to fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as anyone who enjoyed the Irish stream-of-consciousness writing of Frank McCourt. Far from being a beach read, The Hollow Ground will keep readers thinking about it long after they’ve set it down.