When he tried to plow through Pilgrim’s Progress Huckleberry Finn famously remarked that it was tough. Hah! He never read Boneland, the new novel by Alan Garner.
Billed as a third book following the classic Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Moon of Gomrath, both of which came in the 1960s, this is actually false advertising. The first two books were epic fantasy, Tolkienesque or perhaps Narnia-like, with elves and dwarves and children adventuring through Deep Myth. Boneland is not any of these things. It is set forty years later, and is about the PTSD and disabilities of Colin, the surviving hero of the earlier two books and now an adult scientist. Most of the story is spent with Colin and his psychiatrist; this is not the stuff of epic fantasy.
The work Boneland is most like is “The Problem of Susan” by Neil Gaiman, a highly controversial short story (collected in his anthology Fragile Things) which also addresses the adult survivor of adventure. That you cannot return untouched from Alderley Edge, that journeying to Narnia may damage you permanently — that however exciting the movies were or thrilling the novels, you really really do not want to do this! — is a great idea. Because of the events of the first two books, the adult Colin is now mentally ill, which means that since he’s the viewpoint character everything is difficult to understand. And what happened to him is hard to understand in and of itself. These two obscuring veils mean that I had to read the book a couple times to figure out what was going on. Heaven help you if you are not thoroughly familiar with both earlier books, because Garner gives you absolutely no help.
Oh, and did I mention a mysterious secondary story track, apparently set in the Mesolithic, about cave art and mythic stories? How this connects up to the modern day story, and the events of the earlier two books, is almost impossible to figure out. Colin may be this cave artist, who may be the wizard from the earlier two books. Or not. If you have an idea, let me know — even Ursula LeGuin had to puzzle it.
However, even though I am a big fan of Keeping It Simple, I have to admire this complexity. Garner is deliberately doing this, as an artistic decision, and it’s amazing. The complete mysteriousness of plot is balanced by an utterly spare prose style that shades off into poetry. He’s really good at it, peeling the words down until only the twiggy bones are left and your mind has to fill in all the meat. You have to work at this book — it’s tough. Huckleberry Finn is right. It makes a terrible set with the earlier two. But, apparently, it was written for me! The reader who enjoyed the earlier children’s books and is now an adult who can handle complexity. If that is you as well, this book is wonderful.
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