The Sacred Combe by Thomas Maloney

Review by Jackie Smith

Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Genre: literary fiction
Publisher: Scribe Publications

To say Sam Browne is lost is something of an understatement. He thought he was happily married, until his wife of three years decided to start a new life with someone else. Torn, he quits his job to hide out in a decrepit old house for a few months, as an assistant to a mysterious old man dedicated to preserving his family history.

It’s a monotonous job; and the fruits of Sam’s labour are seemingly unacknowledged, despite the fact that he has settled in quite well with his employer and his family. Little does he realise that this escape from reality might just be the beginning of something he didn’t know he was missing.

That’s a summary of the blurb by which I was intrigued to read UK author Thomas Maloney’s debut novel, The Sacred Combe (published mid-2016). With echoes of historical delights such as that found in Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth and hints of lyricism as found in the prose of Ken Follett’s work, I approached this book with high expectations.

Given that the book had been praised by James Wilson (The Summer of Broken Stories) as “intelligent, intriguing [and] wonderfully written” and Richard Holmes (Coleridge and The Age of Wonder) as “vibrating with the literary and musical echoes of late Romanticism”, who could blame me?

While Holmes’ quote may ring true – there is no denying that Maloney has a remarkable way of crafting his tale – the plot didn’t quite hang together as well as I may have hoped. Though the prose may have been wonderfully written (maybe even enough to justify call Maloney a promising storyteller) something within the story itself, and the characters around which it revolved, was missing. Something that re-enforced that sense of mystical atmosphere with a resolution just as satisfying.

When you think about it, for those who prefer their literature more prophetic and highbrow, The Sacred Combe may be a gem, but for me, it lacked the brilliance the blurb (and all related press materials) promised. It’s hard with a book such as this to pinpoint its exact flaws, which may even be as basic as a marketing error, but I guess that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

As a whole, the novel left me feeling a little unsettled, disappointed and anxious for some real action. Unfortunately, if I was to read more of Maloney’s work, it would only be for comparison’s sake and my expectations for improvement would be rather low.

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