“The Hunger Trace” opens with an escaped herd of ibex being rounded up in a supermarket car park by Maggie, the recently widowed owner of the local wildlife park, and Louisa, a single falconer who lives in the grounds of the park and who has a past with the deceased owner, David Bryant, that she believes his widow is unaware of. The two women make an uneasy alliance as Maggie has to get to grips with running the park. As a priority she has to turn around dwindling attendances and fight off vandalism allegedly from animal rights activists (she later finds the cause is much closer to home). A teenaged stepson with a schizoaffective disorder adds to her problems and Maggie is determined to resist Louisa’s solution of sending the son off to live with his mother, Maggie’s late husband’s first wife.
As Maggie plans to turn the wildlife park into a conservation site by replacing exotic species with native wildlife, Louisa muses back on her past with David Bryant. She reveals that she had loved David and their shared past involves a dead child, whose mother could not report missing as social services had taken him into care. She also becomes involved with Adam, a groundsman at a golf course by day and male escort at night, making money to send to his daughter being brought up by her mother, a woman he briefly had a relationship with as a young man.
It’s a book that holds a mirror up to life: the messy, unfocused, lurching from one incident to another as characters simultaneously urge time to quickly get them through their mundane days, yet look back with nostalgia and mourn time passing. When a falcon becomes malnourished, its feathers become brittle. If the bird is then nursed back to health, as happened with Louisa’s favourite falcon, the feathers re-grow but show a fault line known as a hunger trace. Each character has his or her own hunger trace, a craving for something to be filled. Through Christopher, Maggie is aware she’s not getting any younger and also aware she’s still young enough to start a second family. He is her stepson and although she’s taken on responsibility for him, he still has a mother and a half-sister elsewhere. Louisa is aware her earlier act of sacrifice to save David amounted to nothing: not only did she not get the relationship she wanted, it is creating a barrier to a new relationship she does want. Adam is increasingly drawn in to Louisa’s self-sufficient existence, finding her “what you see is what you get” attitude refreshing after the artificial lives of his clients, yet he hungers after the daughter he can’t see growing up. And Christopher wants to be loved and protected, yet, typically for a teenager, wants it on his terms and pushes away the people who actually care about him.
It’s also a book where nothing much happens. No one’s on a journey or a quest and all incidents serve to maintain the status quo, even the floods, a one in 112 year event. They are merely a catalyst for a decision Maggie had already made and force Louisa to focus on the present.
Its charm is entirely down to the writing, which is lyrical and very readable, but not for readers who like their books with plots and action.