“Still, nature abhors a vacuum, and no more so than the hole left by a soul taken friendless, anonymous and alone. Like air, or birdsong, myth floods in to fill the gap.” – The Hollow Tree, page 14.
A lost hand and an empty grove containing years of ribbon, flowers, and notes memorializing a mystery women converge in The Hollow Tree by James Brogden. In the Afterword of the book, James shares that the seed from which this story grows is an “urban myth local to me- that of Bella in the Wych Elm.”
His story centers around Rachel, a happily married 20-something on holiday, who loses her hand in a freak boating accident. As we walk with her through her recovery, we learn she feels phantom sensations of her amputated hand. Brogden does an excellent job in this first quarter of the book showing us the grieving process as Rachel mourns her lost hand.
Soon Rachel realizes she isn’t experiencing normal post amputation reactions. She can literally touch another world, an underground world of sorts, where her hand lives on. She starts having nightmares about a woman trapped inside a tree. On medical leave recovering from her accident, the dreams increase in intensity and she is driven to go to the location of the nightmares. Once at the Lickey Hills, she learns the tale of Oak Mary. An unidentified female skeleton was found in a hollow oak after World War II. The tree was removed decades ago, but Rachel’s absent hand can feel its bark. Ultimately, through Rachel’s missing /not missing hand, Oak Mary is pulled from a land of limbo into our world.
While the book is categorized as science fiction/horror, it could have easily been categorized as a thriller, mystery, or urban fantasy. The story is part amateur sleuth detecting, and part a hero’s journey in which Rachel uses supernatural talents to rescue “Mary” from the Umbra (a shadow world of memories). England really shines in this story and several times I stopped in my reading to Google places discussed such as Lickey Hills and The Hive. I was pleasantly surprised to find how well the descriptions in the book matched the actual locations.
One of the many enjoyable elements of The Hollow Tree is how Brogden fleshes out his villain; not only is the ‘big bad’ fully developed, it’s safe to say we aren’t certain if he is truly bad or perhaps actually good at points in the story, which makes for a more interesting read.
Through the loss of her left hand, Rachel is transformed from a life on the sidelines watching CCTV for a living. She becomes a hero who puts her own fears aside to help the anonymous woman in the tree. James Brogden is able to tie together Rachel’s own family history to the Oak Tree Mary Myth in a very satisfying way.
When I finished the book, I wondered if Brogden would be writing a sequel to this book; the ending leaves a door open both literally and figuratively in Rachel’s life. I think the world he has built is worth at least a sequel–if not a series of books about Rachel Copper–so I contacted James Brogden via Twitter (@skippybe) to ask about a second book.
— James Brogden (@skippybe) March 26, 2018
If you are a fan of urban fantasy or enjoy a well-crafted mystery, go read this book! When you are done, review it and let Titan Books know you’d read a sequel.