“I have cursed your father tonight, and your brother, and now I curse you, John Brodrick,” he cried, “and not only you, but your sons after you, and your grandsons, and may your wealth bring them nothing but despair and desolation and evil, until the last of them stands humble and ashamed amongst the ruins of it, with the Donovans back again in Clonmere on the land that belongs to them.”
Hungry Hill is the story of five generations of the Brodricks, a family of rich landowners who live at Clonmere Castle in Ireland. It begins in 1820 when ‘Copper John’ Brodrick decides to open a copper mine on Hungry Hill, land which once belonged to the Donovan family, who have been feuding with the Brodricks for many years. As soon as Morty Donovan hears about the new mine he becomes determined to destroy it and places a curse on Copper John and his descendants.
Hungry Hill, as you can probably tell from the brief summary I’ve given, is a very dark and depressing novel. Its pages are filled with deaths, accidents, illnesses and every sort of bad luck you could imagine. As we move down through the generations we meet characters such as the lazy, irresponsible ‘Greyhound John’, wild and beautiful Fanny-Rosa Flower and spoiled, selfish Johnnie, and we watch as they suffer one tragedy after another, sometimes not entirely undeserved.
It’s not unusual for a du Maurier book to be dark and depressing, but this one is particularly relentless in its portrayal of utter misery, unhappiness and despair. It’s true that most of the characters are very flawed and often bring their misfortunes on themselves (I disliked a few of them so much I wasn’t sorry at all when they came to an unpleasant end!) but it was still frustrating and painful to see them making such huge mistakes. There are also some good, decent people who become caught up in the Brodricks’ web of disaster and it’s very sad to see them suffering too.
Although this is historical fiction, the story has that strangely timeless feel that so many of du Maurier’s books have. We know that it’s the nineteenth century (dates are given in the section headings) but the historical events of the time don’t play any significant part in the novel; the potato famine, the Crimean War and other important events are barely mentioned or alluded to at all. Similarly, although it’s not difficult to work out that the book is set in Ireland, I don’t think the name ‘Ireland’ is ever specifically used – there are just vague references to ‘this country’ or ‘over the water’. This story of a cursed family could almost have been set in any time and any place. And maybe that is the point, because the themes of the novel are universal: coping with the loss of a parent or a spouse, addictions to gambling or alcohol, unemployment and poverty, and whether we have the right to spoil natural beauty in the name of progress.
This is not one of my favourite du Maurier novels and I can’t imagine that I would want to read it again – once was enough for me – but I still enjoyed it (if enjoyed is the right word for such a bleak and unhappy story). I would recommend it not just to du Maurier fans but also to anyone looking for a good, well written family saga similar to Susan Howatch’s Penmarric or Cashelmara.