Orla and the Wild Hunt is a deeply powerful and emotive book where Anna Hoghton allows the reader to confront some of the dark sides of both humanity and folklore and shows there’s a lot more to it all than simply good and bad.
A journey into grief and loss that feels as powerful and cathartic as The Way Past Winter and for those who resonated with Max’s storyline in Series 4 of Stranger Things and her ‘haunting’ but it’s obviously a bit much for a child or sibling in similar pain Orla and The Wild Hunt will give that same ‘Running Up That Hill’ feel.
With flavours of Spiderwick Chronicles with a dash of The Midnight Hour Trilogy – I may have shouted ‘It’s a Pooka!!!’ at one point- the heavier emotional themes across Orla and The Wild Hunt are brightened by the presence of fun and lighthearted comedy especially from a Pooka they trick into helping them who has a very dry wit and rude attitude including berating them for stinking and retching whenever they show emotions.
Orla thinks she’s too old for stories and magic- she no longer believes in them not because she’s too old but because she can’t believe in anything beautiful or magical since her mother died, and now her father is cosying up with a new woman she doesn’t believe in happy endings either.
But when a visit after two years of absence to her Irish grandmother ends up with her Gran being taken by the Wild Hunt she discovers with her young brother that her Gran’s stories were all true, and were in a way a training manual to help them not only understand their Irish heritage but to cope should they ever trespass into the land of faerie… like now when they decide to rescue her.
With the help of a cantankerous Pooka and a mysterious local boy Connor, they must enter the Tangled Woods, traverse the island of Ireland’s mythological sites and battle the Wild Hunt to save Gran before they destroy her mind.
‘Honestly, this whole promise death thing is a real pain in the ears.’Pooka
Gran’s stories are always filled with Irish folk tales, mythology and the Tuatha Dé Danann stirred together with wider mythology and folklore from these islands. From the Salmon of Knowledge The Dagda, beann sidhe and Fionn mac Cumhaill’s role in the Giants Causeway but all with a gentle twist such as bringing King Oberon to the Emerald Isle and that Benandonner was Fionn’s brother not a Scottish giant who wanted to kill him.
As you can guess, I was in my element. I go into a sort of busy ‘flow’ whenever folklore and mythology are evoked in a book, where I can be invested in the plot and then go get my books or use other references to remind myself of those universal stories of wonder that are tangled in my soul.
And then there’s Faeries. Proper Celtic Good Folk mythology with a dash of Western European lore (Oberon himself comes from Germanic folklore not just Shakespeare) , but even more beautifully for me a deeper look at Fae, not as the bad guys, nor indeed as the good guys but just… being and the potential for both on their own terms, and indeed the potential for fondness of humankind even if that is more like how we may smile at cute wild creatures.
What I loved is how Anna turns the narrative on the usual ‘dark faery’ ethics recognising that when you live a life that seems immortal to a human, the capricious and often contradictory values of human ethics seem to not befit the context. It’s like how we as humans don’t intend to destroy the planet, or put other people continents away in horrible situations but the things we enjoy as a society often end up doing so. In the same way as what the faeries find fun or beautiful because there is little risk or negative consequences for them we may find terrifying and terrible.
I like to see this complexity of faery and indeed wider mythology explored in books, not that they are all ‘Disney’ good- but that they are far more complicated than a label of ‘evil’.
‘I thought I was cutting him off, but really it was me I was cutting off. And now I’m all by myself and I wish I weren’t’Fionn reflects on the argument with his brother that caused him to smash the bridge between them
The Wild Hunt itself is a metaphor for depression and Anna Hoghton is Brutally truthful about the risks of non-confronted grief and the wicked feelings when anyone particularly young people experiencing a particularly devastating loss of a parent or care person are unable to cope with grief.
The greatest lie for Orla is that by squatting in dark thoughts and sadness and lashing out at those around her she feels righteously like she is the only one truly grieving, when in fact she is hiding in the state of misery because it is too painful to confront and journey with her grief to find a new state of being.
People in grief destroy our worlds, relationships and selves bit by bit, denying ourselves any comfort or kindness, refusing joy, spiteful guilt tears at any pleasure however small, and grinding resentment to those around us who present as ‘moved on’ because we feel to confront the pain and real feelings behind the door is truly more terrifying than losing ourselves in the abyss.
Why should she continue to struggle and fight? …even if they didn’t lose Gran to the Wild Hunt for ever, Gran would still die, eventually, just like mum had…wouldn’t it be easier?
‘Let me take the pain away’Orla first meets the Wild Hunt.
Orla learns the hard way that the only way to live again, is not to forget but is to confront the hard things, to shine bright electric light into the cupboard and unpack the pain and experience the things she has avoided as she journeys to save her grandmother.
A family friend spoke about this last Friday as she spoke to the group about losing her mother a few years ago- that when something is associated with pain we try to avoid it, because it’s painful. We avoid a hospital because that’s where a loved person died, then we avoid the street that leads to it, then we avoid that part of town that the hospital is. We may avoid going to a place that person loved, use a perfume and so forth until we restrict our lives with boundaries constructed in our head to avoid pain. This friend had decided to do the opposite and to go to those places that could be painful and remove their power over her and allow the good memories to thrive. And that’s what Orla needs to do to survive.
Orla never looks at the pictures under her bed yet is angry that her father doesn’t display any in their new house, she refuses to sing or even think about music because it was her and her mothers special bond, feels sick at the thought of even thinking of her mother yet her life is obsessed with her grief. Orla is angrily drifting like a vengeful spirit through life because she is frightened of acknowledging the depth of the pain of loss.
Orla’s journey quest across Ireland to save her grandmother is actually a healing pilgrimage as it forces her to unpack these things, singing to call the water sprites, letting go of talismans of grief, letting the pain out and choosing love and risking love even if we know it will hurt us again in the future. Sometimes it is just too painful to restrict ourselves within the bud than to feel the pain of bursting into flower and eventually fading.
‘The world is full of magic’, mum had said ‘you just have to keep paying attention.’Orla remembers one of the last times with her mum
Overall this is a deeply powerful book, and a necessity in modern day book collections, classroom shelves and libraries, most importantly because unlike ‘childhood grief’ books of past Anna doesn’t hold back on the dark side of grief, the way Orla is horrible to everyone but it’s because of the horrors she’s putting herself through, but it takes us through the catharsis, the journey of grief rather than a shallow moment of admitting at the end, Orla heals over the book and it’s a difficult, painful journey and she wants to give in at times but she fights on.
That is a more valuable message for child readers, grief is hard, and getting through it doesn’t mean it doesn’t ever hurt again, but it means you choose to live and love again.
Please check out the other stops on the tour!!
Orla and the Wild Hunt by Anna Hoghton is published by Chicken House Books
Thank you for my copy 💜