Many countries, including the United States, house their poor in such unpleasant places that they are rethinking the way to provide housing assistance for them. Numerous high rise facilities have been demolished, like the infamous Cabrini Green in Chicago or Atlanta’s Bowen Homes, and replaced with mixed-income housing projects. In England, they are called council estates. High rises are even more problematic there, for England has never taken much to the skyscraper, at least as a place to live. So it’s not surprising that there are places like The Grove, with an abandoned high rise in the center and flats surrounding it in a concentric pattern. Such is the nature of The Grove in Gary McMahon’s The Concrete Grove, because that’s all you see there: no trees, no grass, no flowers, only concrete.
Hailey lives in the Grove with her mother. The place scares her, because she is not accustomed to it. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, but her father lost the family’s money and committed suicide, and now they’re stuck living on as best they can. Hailey yearns for a place she can be on her own, and for someone, or something, to save her. She often heads for the Needle, the abandoned skyscraper in the middle of the Grove, for some private time. It isn’t exactly a pleasant place, being filled with trash and unpleasant smells, but it’s a place she can grab some time for herself. One day after school, she happens upon a flock of hummingbirds in the room she usually frequents in the Needle. She is enraptured, especially because hummingbirds are not native to England; she’s never seen one before. But these hummingbirds seem to be messengers of a sort, from a literal grove that existed before the Concrete Grove existed, and right there, in Chapter One, unpleasant things begin happening.
McMahon quickly introduces us to another viewpoint character, Tom, who likes to run to keep in shape, but also to escape from his wife. It’s an especially sad marriage. His wife is a paraplegic, having been in a automobile accident while on her way to a tryst with a paramour. She no longer makes the slightest effort to be a wife in any way, not even leaving her bed any longer, simply eating herself to death. One day — that same day Hailey had her encounter with the hummingbirds — Tom is out running near the Grove when he comes across Hailey, crumpled by the side of the road. He rescues her from what appears to be a faint, and takes her home to her mother, Lana. Lana and Tom have an immediate physical attraction to each other, an attraction that they refuse to deny.
But the Grove has something to say about that, and things continue to get darker as this very black novel continues. We learn that Lana is in deep with the Grove’s resident loan shark, who is as brutal – no, actually more brutal – than one can imagine. McMahon does not spare his readers, but he doesn’t need to overwhelm us with gory details. He tells us just enough so that our own imaginations soar into a darkness we never thought lived there, seeing in our mind’s eye what he only hints at. It takes a true master to make a reader paint the picture after he has merely drawn the outline.
McMahon hints at a deeper story than the horrific picture he draws, though, and the reader is left wishing that he had filled in more of the details. One guesses that he is attempting to use the trope of an oak grove as the home of ancient powers that are insensible to humans, seeing them, if at all, only as tools. The Concrete Grove seems to be built over one of these old places of power. It transforms the older grove rather than replacing it, and McMahon seems to want us to see that the transformation has warped those powers. This would have been a better story if McMahon had done more with the deep background. Desperation, frustration and terror lurk in the pages of The Concrete Grove, and one wishes for an explanation. Publicity for the book states that this is the first novel in a trilogy, so maybe we’ll learn more as the trilogy goes on.
But then, perhaps the lack of a reason is all the reason for the horror McMahon means for us to see for now. Hopelessness emanates from every page; no character seems to have a way out of the awfulness in which he or she lives. McMahon’s horror is existential as well as experiential, and it’s hard to say which is the more terrifying.