Harry is a journalist, slightly rumpled and morally compromised and borderline alcoholic in that way that journalists in fiction usually are (and maybe in real life too; who knows). Harry is off from his London home up to Cumbria to investigate some confusing stories of a group of children who've had visions of the Virgin Mary.
Harry has some previous in this department as he encountered something similar during his time in Bosnia covering the conflict there in the mid-1990s (presumably in or near Medjugorje); he's also not unhappy to get away from London as he's been having a torrid time with his wife Melissa, to the extent of leaving her with a black eye after an argument. He's also got his eye on comely journalist colleague Janice who is heading up to help cover the same story, and is looking forward to the prospect of some discreet hotel-based action.
When he arrives, though, he discovers that things are a bit less clear then they appeared. He has a series of strange encounters on the beach near the hotel he has chosen to check into, which also turns out to be near a nuclear facility (presumably Sellafield) at which there has recently been some sort of leak or other crisis. Not only that, despite choosing the hotel on a whim they seem to have been expecting him, especially alluring receptionist Ellen who tells him where he can find the children.
He then has a series of increasingly strange encounters with the children, and especially Gaby, a young girl of twelve or thirteen who turns out to be of Bosnian descent. First he encounters her in a barn at a farm, before she is taken away in a car by a man who may or may not be from Social Services, then he meets all the children during some strange fishing ritual back at the beach, from where they go to the house of kindly wheelchair-bound Mrs. Ferguson, who is conducting some mysterious scientific experiments in the local area, and then later they all head back to the hotel where Harry ends up in his room with a group of naked twelve-year olds (including Gaby) in his bed and him and Ellen sharing a mattress on the floor.
So not much rugged investigative journalism being done yet then, indeed the story Harry was chasing seems to be largely forgotten as he heads back to his home in London. Expecting to be reunited with Melissa he finds her missing and son Billy sharing a bed with his schoolfriend Jenny, whose parents seem to be undergoing some relationship trauma she's escaping from. A series of further mysterious encounters ensue - first in a local pub with Janice, who instead of hooking up with Harry in Cumbria has rekindled a relationship with Charlie, who now works as a security officer at the nuclear facility but was formerly a soldier in, among other places, Bosnia. Then he meets up with Melissa and they find Billy, Jenny and Gaby near some abandoned buildings down by an old canal. Seeing a light from another warehouse they sneak a look inside, only to find some sort of weird Operation Spanner-esque BDSM sex orgy going on, complete with all sorts of eye-watering nailing and fisting activities. Deciding to do a bunk from the scene before the police arrive, they escape down the canal in a rowing boat.
Finally - the boat-based escape having been successful and family life returning to normal - Harry returns to Bosnia to follow up some threads from the original story, and during the course of another encounter with some orphan children and a mysterious nun gets a new perspective on what's been happening.
Some novels conform pretty closely to your expectations - expectations built up, assuming you're not already familiar with the author, by reading the blurb on and inside the covers while browsing around the bookshop (one of the second-hand shops in Hay-on-Wye in the case of this particular one). Some, on the other hand, don't - this is one of those. The first couple of chapters are pretty solidly down-to-earth as they set the scene of Harry's unhappy home life, occasional drink problems and possible burgeoning romance with Janice. Once he gets to Cumbria, though, it all gets increasingly weird and dream-like, no-one seems able to have a normal conversation without talking past each other in a portentous way, and Harry drifts through the series of strange situations without (seemingly) feeling the need to question or take a grip on events. Whether the kids really have had some sort of visitation, what's been going on at the nuclear facility, what's up with the tangential references to child abuse and Social Services' involvement, what Mrs. Ferguson was up to with her experiments, whether Melissa really has been having an affair, what's going on with Jenny's parents, how Billy and Jenny and Gaby ended up together down at the canalside House of Fisty Sex Games - all these questions are left unanswered.
There's a general air of dreamy and slightly queasily erotic mysticism running though the book, and Mosley has some slightly odd stylistic tics, most jarringly phrasing all the thoughts that run through Harry's head as questions, even though most of them are just statements. This Observer review nails it quite nicely - while generally favourable it is peppered with phrases like:
- virtually story-less
- without the slightest concession to straight narrative
- teeters on the edge of wilful eccentricity
- anarchic attitude towards punctuation
- an obliquely original species of novel
Interestingly, as I only discovered after finishing the book, Nicholas Mosley is the eldest son of Oswald Mosley, and the half-brother of Max Mosley, who of course would have fitted right in at the warehouse sex orgy at the end of the book, as long as someone was wearing a Nazi outfit. But, as they say, you can't choose your relatives - Mosley overcame this shaky start to win the Whitbread Prize in 1990 with his novel Hopeful Monsters. Even more fascinatingly this is the second book in the last half-dozen that has had a title in the format X of Y and Z, this being the other.