“…the tension and menace that begins to grow from the first page escalates with each page you turn.”
by Susan McKeever
It’s the end of the summer season in the small coastal town of Granard, New England, and the cicadas have stopped calling.
Todd Nasca sits on the semi-deserted beach watching his six-year-old son, Christopher, playing by the waves. Todd has moved there for a fresh start after a divorce from a marriage that was barely even that – his ex, Livia, fled to gallivant around Europe soon after their son was born.
Todd has taken a job teaching English literature at the local high school, and Christopher will start first grade, having been kept out of the kindergarten years by his father – only one of many misguided decisions made by Todd.
Along the beach in the distance, a figure walks closer and closer to them, eventually talking to the boy by the waves and then approaching Todd. After the initial low sun-blinding reveals his face, he sees it is that of his high school tormentor, Jack Gates. But why? How? Could this really be a coincidence?
Jack inveigles himself into Todd and Christopher’s lives, while Todd seems unable to do anything to stop it.
Todd’s unease with the situation builds chapter by chapter, and finally, as school is about to start, Todd gives Jack an ultimatum. He must leave the next day. They need their routine; him in teaching and Christopher in learning.
He feels the burden and unease lift even as they take their ‘last’ walk on the boardwalk. The unexpected ‘I love you’ from his son makes his heart soar, only to come crashing down when he adds: ‘And I love Jack.’
The eponymous Hawk Mountain surfaces throughout the story, and we sense the key to the complexity of feelings experienced by Todd since Jack’s arrival lies there.
While on a field trip with his class to the mountain, the teenage Todd had a transformative experience involving Jack. He’s never forgotten it.
From our first encounter with Todd, to his interaction with peripheral characters in the plot, we realise that he is a deeply flawed and unstable character, a condition that has endured from that day on Hawk Mountain.
Now he is in freefall, and boundaries carefully set up over years of adulthood begin to become horribly blurred.
Tension and menace
Hawk Mountain is impossible to put down from the start, but at the same time you just want it to end – because the tension and menace that begins to grow from the first page escalates with each page you turn.
We become enmeshed in the narrative, which ramps up in Part Two to the stuff of nightmares, bringing us to straight to hell, along with the protagonist.
Conner Habib has written a debut novel which has the style, elevated prose and assurance of a much more experienced novelist. He uses devices to keep us hooked – a chapter from the point of view of Christopher brings us into the soul of a six year old deeply troubled by recent events— turned strange and violent by them.
We are briefly taken away from the underlying horror of the story by interwoven snapshots from nature, but they are bleak: a lost Labrador, once fat, now skinny, wanders through the grass on a ‘starving path’ – a family misses him but he will never know; the black beak of a crow digs for the beating heart of a plover chick, the plover crying ‘a tiny, hopeless bleat’.
Todd’s words to Jack towards the end encapsulate the heart of Habib’s story: ‘Is everyone unhappy? … I think, Jack, I was happy sometimes; no, I was, I was before you, before you showed up … Everything is fine and then something shows up and you can’t be happy after that; what is that?’
Susan McKeever is an editor, writer and ghostwriter for several Irish and international publishers and authors. She works from her home in the red-brick heart of Dublin’s Portobello. @MckeeverSusan, susanmckeever.biz