The Endlands, Yorkshire holds many charms and memories for Johnny Pentacost, who returns to the area after his grandfather "The Gaffer" suddenly dies. John looks backward to his past to the loss of his mother and his father, The Dadda who dreamt of a different future for his son. Devil's Day is a powerful novel that brings Johnny face-to-face with the responsibilities of his family's farm and the possibility that he will be the one to carry the family mantle.
Freshly married and living in Suffolk, John has been teaching at a boys school on the edge of the Fen. Now rural life is calling him back. His wife, Kate, is excited about seeing the place where John grew up. Even before The Gaffer's death, John has been feeling restless: "I found myself thinking about the Endlands more than I used to." Though Kate is well-rooted in Suffolk, John is convinced that his wife will fall in love with the Moss and the moors, the hay meadows and the fields by Sullom Wood.
Just like the farm that surrounds him, Dadda suffers from the corrosive urges of nature and the farm itself, which Kate soon realizes is just one endless round of maintenance, a place where "everyone dies in the midst of repairing something." This community represents the power of Yorkshire tradition and identity. John has been raised to accept Dadda's authority, but John's willingness to return to the farm is challenged when Kate sees him through the eyes of Dadda as well as their neighbors: Laurel Dyer, who has lived in the valley for thirty years, "mother hen" Angela Beasley, and Grace Dyer, who looks more like Angela every time John comes back to the valley. The Gaffer's passing has unsettled Grace; she adored the Gaffer, and he had doted on her.
Pregnant Kate is surprisingly drawn to Grace even after Grace blurts out her assumptions too quickly:
The child in Grace was starting to leave and something else was taking over, a bully of a creature that broke things and got her into trouble or spilled secrets just because it hurt to do so. With her physical and emotional autonomy only just beginning to develop, Grace is unable to resist imposing her odd power of prophecy on Kat. Kat is hesitant about John's plan to return to the valley. She and John have created lives for themselves in Suffolk. Even Dadda is hesitant to give approval to his son to return to this hardscrabble landscape that he sees a place of sacrifice.
Family dynamics aside, Hurley's novel is an ode to these hardscrabble farmers who John meets at The Gaffer's wake, "the men who stayed." It frightens John how easily they settled for so little, preferring to scrape by than chance it anywhere else: "they didn't leave, or couldn't leave, or lacked the courage to leave." Hurley textures his story with the legend of "the Blizzard," the winter storm that swooped down through the valley causing death and destruction from Sullom Wood and the High Walk to the Beasleys' farm and the Corpse Road that runs for miles into the moorland.
Readers might be frustrated by the story's pace, but Hurley's style is always lovely and breathless, perfectly suited to the wilds of the Endlands. Much of the mystery of the novel comes from John's past and the summer he left primary school. He has never confided to Kat about his role in Lennie Stuzaker's death and how one afternoon they found Lennie's body in the river, rising and falling with the debris. From the summer's yield of hay to the legend of Brownlee Hall, built by Gideon Denning's father, Hurley portrays John as a modern man--a certain type, a farmer and city-dweller who returns home; and Kat, who is no less developed than she would have been in a more traditional novel.
Perhaps the most interesting character is Grace, whom Hurley beautifully contrasts with Kat. While the Devil wanders from ridge to ridge across the moors, John holds dear to his instinct to return home, no matter how hard The Endlands shift and shudder and evolve around him.