Boneland, by Alan Garner: A Very Short Review

By Brenda Clough

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.

bonelandBilled 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.

My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out exclusively from Book View Café.

I also have stories in Book View Café’s two steampunk anthologies, The Shadow Conspiracy and The Shadow Conspiracy II, as well as in BVC’s many other anthologies, including our latest, Beyond Grimm.



About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.


Boneland, by Alan Garner: A Very Short Review — 4 Comments

  1. Oh, and one other similar work: THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, by Colm Toibin. This so-so short novel is a first-person memoir by Mary, mother of Jesus. Again, the idea is that getting involved with the Divine is not a path to happiness.

  2. I can tell I want to read this (a big fan of Moon of Gomrath) but I do not expect to understand it intellectually. I can only hope to understand it metaphorically.

  3. I’m not surprised in a sense, but nevertheless disappointed you feel this way about Boneland. Perhaps because I am 57 and grew up with Garner as he grew as a writer I see no misrepresentation in heralding it as the third part of the trilogy. Gomrath already has darker allusions than the Weirdstone and Garner’s subsequent writings continue along that trajectory. I would have been disappointed if he had attempted a return to the Weirdstone with the novel that was going to explain it all. This is 50 years on and Colin and many of his readers have grown up and moved through adulthood. That Colin has had difficulties is unsurprising. Indeed Cadellin voices his concerns about humans meddling in the ways of Wizards in the earlier books. Is Colin mentally ill? He appears more as very high functioning ASD to me. And whilst Cadellin’s attempt to erase all memory of Colin’s involvement may or may not have contributed to this we see the unravelling and restoration of Colin’s integrated personality through the book. The past time sequences cement and tie in with the places of the first two stories and Colin’s current abode and his sense of being the keeper of the place. Whether actual resurrection or archetype of the creator and keeper of the Edge, indeed of the world Colin grows back to his persona of Colin. The Colin who has experienced what he only vaguely glimpsed in the corners of what he feared was his delusion and at the same time the wider, deeper archetype of the spirit of the place. This book explains the adult and mystical background to the first two books in a deeper, more satisfying way than simple Tolkienesque fol de rol could have achieved.

  4. Oh, it’s a tour de force, for sure. But satisfying is not the word I would use — it’s too spare for that. A work that so resolutely puts aside the needs of the reader — this is a highly mature work, not for the kiddies.