No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, June 12, 2006

#58: Bone House -- Betsy Tobin

A murder mystery set somewhere in England, in 1603: there's little sense of time or place, but that might just be a comment on the timelessness of rural life. Tobin presents the corpse -- that of a 'great woman', Dora, the village prostitute -- and sets up various suspects. Her narrator is a rather humourless young woman, a maid at the manor house, who makes it her business to discover the reason for Dora's murder. She's aided by a young painter who has arrived from Holland to paint the Dowager, an elderly but sharp-witted woman who has plans for our narrator.

I found the author's reluctance to bestow names on her characters rather irritating. I can make a case for not naming a first-person narrator: but was it necessary to keep referring to 'the painter', 'my mistress', 'my master', 'my mother'? I couldn't detect rhyme nor reason to the characters who were named: Dora herself, the doctor Lucius, the lord of the manor (who becomes 'Edward', at least to his mother, towards the end of the book) and Dora's son, who doesn't exactly have a name but is always referred to as 'the Long Boy', on account of having grown to adult size by the age of eleven.

So much for the names. The language seemed lifeless, a prime example of the approach to historical fiction where slang, colloquialisms, contractions and humour are all regarded as newfangled nonsense, to be avoided when writing about The Past. There were scenes that were remarkably powerful, but that was in spite of the prose. The narrator never really came to life; the ending seemed rushed, and not solidly supported by the rest of the story; and the nameless narrator felt somehow unfinished throughout, full of potential but never quite realising it. The ending did nothing to realise or redeem her, either.

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