Friday, August 25, 2017

the last book I read

Boneland by Alan Garner.

Colin Whisterfield is a bit of a rum cove. Actually, that's Professor Colin Whisterfield to you, brilliant nucleo-quanto-astro-physicist or some such, working at the Jodrell Bank Observatory. His main work involves making minute observations via the mahoosive Lovell Telescope; Colin's particular obsession is observing the Pleiades, for reasons he only dimly understands, but which involve his sister's disappearance when they were both children.

Colin is not a man generally given to only understanding things dimly, as he has complete day-by-day recall of everything he has ever done. The trouble is this only extends back to the age of thirteen, before which he can barely remember anything at all, and where efforts to remember prompt severe anxiety attacks.

Colin has been passed through the hands of several mental health professionals before he encounters Meg, an unconventional lady psychotherapist much given to motorbike-riding and with a healthy disregard for the normal proprieties of practitioner-patient interaction. With her help (after a few false starts) they start to make some progress in piecing together what happened to Colin and his sister, by the (in hindsight fairly obvious) means of examining local records of the time. And, sure enough, Colin did have a sister, and there was some furore in the local press at the time when she left the farmhouse where she and Colin were staying in the dead of night, took one of the horses, and rode off to who knows where. The horse was later discovered on an island in a nearby lake, but Colin's sister was never seen again.

Let's leave Colin for a minute. Intercut with his bits are some episodes featuring an unnamed protagonist who we are invited to infer inhabits some time period in the Stone Age, though roughly the same Cheshire location. This person appears to be the custodian of some ancient wisdom which enables him to keep the world turning on its axis via some arcane rock-cutting ritual he himself only dimly understands. But, it is implied, if he fails in his appointed duty at its appointed time then some catastrophe will befall the world and some really Bad Shit will happen. As these episodes play out we are invited to infer (well, I think we are) that this guy is only one in a long line of appointed carriers-out of this ritual, and that maybe Colin himself has some connection to it.

One of the ways in which Colin's "issues" manifest themselves is in increasingly vivid encounters with some whispery spectre - sometimes heard, sometimes dimly glimpsed - who may or may not be his sister and whose motives are unclear. She seems keen to warn him away from Meg, though - but why? What is Meg up to? And what of Bert, Colin's taxi-driver friend who seems to know Meg, seems to know Colin's transport requirements before Colin knows them himself, and seems also to work for a taxi firm that doesn't actually exist?

Will Colin solve the mystery of his sister's disappearance? Will Meg's identity be revealed? Will our Stone Age friend successfully complete his appointed task and keep the sky from falling on our heads? Will any of this be revealed to make any sense?

One thing you can say in answer to that last question is that Boneland will almost certainly make very little sense to anyone who hasn't read the two books to which it is a very belated sort-of-sequel, The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen and The Moon Of Gomrath. Those two are, at least in theory, books for children (or "young adults", because apparently that's a thing now); Boneland is most definitely not a children's book. Its writing style and the whole business of the fractured timeline with events in the present echoing those in the past is very reminiscent of Garner's 1973 novel Red Shift, which also involved a stone tool being buried and dug up again as one of the ways in which the story starts itself anew.

Garner is generally pretty scornful about The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen these days, but it was one of the key books of my early teenage years and I must have re-read it well over 20 times over the years. The Moon Of Gomrath is a darker and scarier proposition and certainly carries the implication that Susan's brushes with the magical world have carried her well beyond the point where she can ever be free of it and return to a normal life.

Garner's writing style has gradually become more and more terse and economical over the years, and Boneland doesn't throw the reader any easy pickings. I couldn't say with any certainty, for instance, that I understood any more about Susan's fate at the end of the book than at the beginning. In general the bits of the book that work really well are the flashbacks to the stone age, which are written in a rhythmical, poetic style suggesting stories burnished and refined by being passed down from generation to generation. There's also just a hint of the baton of humanity being passed from Neanderthal man (or some close relative) to his Cro-Magnon successors in the same sort of way as in William Golding's The Inheritors or Jean M Auel's The Clan Of The Cave Bear. Anyway, these sections are great, the lengthy present-day exchanges of dialogue between Colin and Meg less so, largely because they resemble how actual 21st-century humans speak only fleetingly. Meg's identity is hazy - clearly some sort of supernatural entity, it seems at one stage as if we're being invited to wonder if she may be an aspect of the Morrigan, the sorceress from the two earlier books, but her influence seems in the end to have been a benign one.

So while you would think that if the urge took you to finally pick up and write a conclusion to a story you'd set down nearly fifty years earlier, that you'd have some pretty specific way in which you wanted to round the story off. You would think that, but I'm not sure I see what it is; that may of course be a failing on my part. Boneland is intriguing and baffling, and these are not bad things, necessarily. The main thing that I came away from it with, though, was an urge to go back and re-read the previous two books.

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