Boneland by Alan Garner - review

(This is an amplified version of a review that I posted on Goodreads).

I am going to have to re-read this. I thought it was amazing, but I don't think I understand it. Like Red Shift, a book for young adults by Garner that I read a long time ago, it plays with ideas of time and space, and is short on narrative closure. It is the antithesis of the first two books in the series, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, which I read as a child and have re-read many times. Anyone expecting the same rich story-telling and traditional narrative structure will have been disappointed.

On Goodreads, I've only given it four stars when maybe it deserves five because I found the lack of transparency frustrating. It reminds me of The Waste Land, a literary work that needed extreme erudition or plenty of footnotes to understand. Though I persisted to the end, there were times when I longed for the clarity of Garner's early work. It does make me want to visit Alderley Edge to see if I can find the places described in the book; I also want to talk to other people who have read it to see whether I was in any way close to understanding what it meant.

I don't want to offer too many spoilers, but the hero, Professor Colin Whisterfield, is a cosmologist who works at Jodrell Bank. He was one of the two children in the original book but has no memory of the magical events he experienced. His sister vanished many years ago, it seems not long after the end of The Moon of Gomrath. Colin is suffering what seems like a serious mental illness, exacerbated by his amnesia and his subsequent inability to forget anything. He is sent to see a therapist, Meg Massey, who will prove to be possibly not what she seems; and he continues the quest for his lost sister.

The parallel narrative concerns a man in the Stone Age who may not be human at all - rather a hominid. I found his story quite moving and in some ways it contrasted with that of Colin, the alienated modern professor, whose point of view was occasionally irritating. It is harder to work out what is happening in this part of the book because of the elliptical and poetic style, and I will have to return to it.

It gradually becomes clear that what is happening in the far past intertwines with the events of the present, and the fact that Colin works at an establishment with a radio-telescope is not a coincidence. This seems to be a Garnerish joke with a serious purpose; hinting perhaps that where the laws of physics can be so extreme and strange and time far from linear, except as we perceive it, magic may not be impossible after all.

I did enjoy the book and do want to read it again, but part of me longed for a return to the old-fashioned story.

Bluesilver, Baby!


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