This post was republished into it’s original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive.
Boneland by Alan Garner
Last month I was privileged to attend a lecture given by Alan Garner , and came home enthused to read everything he has written, starting with the ‘Weirdstone Trilogy’. I’d read the first two books as a child in the late 1960s, and re-reading them now was a joy which I wrote about here.
Boneland, the final part of the trilogy, although again set around Alderley Edge and featuring Colin (and Susan) is a completely different animal, yet it does cap off the story that began with a retelling of the Legend of Alderley Edge and the chamber of sleeping knights who lay under it, waiting until they are needed.
In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and The Moon of Gomrath, twins Colin and Susan aged twelve by the end, had some fantastic adventures with wizards, dwarves, elves and battled an assortment of nasty demons and goblins. They never questioned why they had been lucky enough to get a glimpse of this hidden side of our world and Susan had seemed to be very attuned to it in particular.
In his lecture, Garner told us he was quite sick of them, so didn’t write any more adventures. But he didn’t kill them off either, and when fifty or so years later, someone said something to him, it had sparked off an idea about them which lead to Boneland.
He told us he’d been inspired to write about what might happen to someone in later life who has had such magical experiences as a child. Wouldn’t real life just be so mundane in comparison – is normal life worth living after that? He noted that CS Lewis never dealt with that in Narnia – indeed Lucy and co live out full and long lives through the wardrobe before trooping back through it and resuming their childhood.
Bonelandstarts several decades after the original adventures. Colin is an astrophysicist working at Jodrell Bank (home of the iconic Lovell Telescope (right) at Alderley Edge). Colin lives alone in an eco-pod. He is also an ornithologist, expert cook and carpenter, has many degrees – you would call him a savant. His social skills are appropriately limited, and despite an eidetic memory, he can’t remember anything from when he was younger than thirteen.
Susan has disappeared, and Colin is obsessed by searching for her in the stars, believing her to have become a star, maybe one of the Pleiades, but it is breaking him.
Eventually, persuaded, he succumbs to psychoanalysis, ministered to him by the unconventional Meg Massey. She, being a black-leather-clad motorbiker in her spare time, effectively fulfills his fantasies and transference duly occurs. She seems too good to be true though – Is she an angel of mercy there to help him through his breakdown, or is she a witchy echo from the past?
Garner intersperses the main story with that of a stone age shaman, who collects bones and makes cave paintings – on Alderley Edge, his story paralleling with Colin’s. You can sense them gradually coming together as Colin realises the answers are to be found on the Edge.
This is a challenging novel to read. Garner’s prose is stripped back, the dialogue-driven passages are nothing but – the reader has to fill in all the gaps – and there are a lot of them. It’s not really quotable. With perseverance, however, all the pieces do start to fall into place. But when Garner does allow himself to describe the scene, the text is rather beautiful as in these examples:
The note of the wind changed, the stresses of the girders and of the dish made their own music as the telescope tracked, slowed to the measure of the Earth’s turning, and the motors died near to silence.
So the day shrank and night stretched. The clonter of the cobbles in the river was silent, and the river fell to sleep. Then was the time when day and night were the same, and the sun tipped towards death.
With Boneland, Garner may have completed his Weirdstone trilogy and achieved closure for Colin, yet I found I was left with a lot of questions. Re-reading parts to help write this post a couple of weeks later, I find that understanding is percolating through, like ancient waters seeping through rock. To quote the blurb, the novel celebrates ‘the enduring resonance of myth‘, and how that collides and interacts with real life. Although I would always advocate reading a trilogy in its entirety starting at the beginning, Bonelandcan stand on its own – but you would be missing a real treat if you didn’t read the other two.
As for Boneland, it is continuing to grow on me (8/10)
You can also read Ursula K Le Guin’s rather brilliant review from the Guardian here.