Boneland

Title: Boneland

Author: Alan Garner

Boneland is a strange read, particular if you’re familiar with the earlier books in the trilogy and read them as a child. This feel is similar to The Weirdstone of Brisinghamen and The Moon of Gomrath – an overcast, vaguely English feel that makes you sure it’s best read inside with a blanket and a hot drink, while the cold and the wind rage outside. Despite having been books for children the magic and the stakes always felt to me, as they did with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and The Lord of the Rings, as if they were extremely serious – regardless of the presence of child protagonists and, well, fantastical elements like noble wizards and evil witches. In that way they seemed quite adult even when I re-read them recently, so despite Boneland being billed specifically as an adult book, I didn’t expect a huge difference in tone.

The tone was, however, confrontingly different to the earlier stories. Having just re-reading The Moon of Gomrath it was odd for Colin, an ordinary boy with good intentions, to suddenly be a much older man – incredibly smart and incredibly damaged. His twin sister Susan is gone, when and where we don’t know, and Colin had no memory of her, or of anything which happened before his thirteenth birthday. Of the time afterwards he remembers everything – every minute of every day.

Unlike the earlier books there are no heroic deeds, no explicitly dramatic events, and almost nothing you could call a plot (at least in comparison). But the biggest difference is the underlying assumption of Weirdstone and Gomrath, that magic, wizards, witches and sleeping knights are real, is gone.

This context makes it hard to know what to think of the story as it unfolds. The lack of obvious magic creates just enough uncertainty that you can’t help but start to see the older books through the same, more realistic lens. It seems more likely that Colin’s mad than that his dead, forgotten sister is trying to communicate with him. And so it seems possible that their childhood adventures were just that, made up, or even constructions to explain Susan’s eventual disappearance. His new psychologist could be a witch, but she’s probably a godsend of a psychologist. Or both. Or none of the above. It’s unsettling, the way it always is if a story you’ve loved at face value is suddenly explained as a metaphor for something far more dull.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the ambiguity I loved it. The dark, windswept feel that I loved in the first books is still there, and while it didn’t always mesh with Weirdstone and Gomrath it did give me a new piece of something I’m still very attached too. I think I even likely that it was vaguely uncomfortable, because that discomfort came from it making me think and reevaluate. I still don’t feel I understood it properly, but I want to reread it in the future in the hope that I eventually do.

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