Since I first read of its publication, in April this year, I have been eagerly awaiting this book, with greater anticipation, I think, than any book I’ve known in my life. It arrived today: I found it waiting when I returned from work, and I have read it, without pause or interruption.
This is a Response, not a Review. It is a tremendous book: an astonishment and, in places, a terror. But it is not a book to take in at one go. There is more in it than I have seen on a single reading, more to be experienced. But I know enough already to know it is not a disappointment to the highest expectations I’ve nursed since April.
Boneland is Alan Garner’s last novel. At the same time it is the unexpected, never-to-be-written final part of a Trilogy begun by his first, and perhaps most famous, novel, The Weirdstone of Brisinga-Mein, a novel written fifty years ago. It is Garner’s last because his approach to a novel, his line of work, the length of time a book requires, means that his age will more than likely preclude completion of another work. It is his last because, after all this years, there is no strand within this story that leads him onwards into another theme: he has already said that he has ‘no idea’.
And it is his last because, as I instinctively believed from the moment I learned of Boneland, it is his last. In it all his themes run together, beginning and ending meet and absorb each other, the work is complete. The ‘real’ and the ‘mythic’ are united.
This is not the third book of a Trilogy, not in the sense of an exclusive story in three books. You will never be able to read The Weirdstone, The Moon of Gomrath and Boneland as a ‘set’. Everything else that Garner wrote, the totality of his original fiction, comes between, is a partner to this story. The Trilogy is a panoply of nine books.
I’m not going to start to describe the story. We have been warned in advance that it takes up Colin (the ‘little bugger’ who, in a fit of fury at a story that was circumscribing him, Garner once ‘throttle(d)’ at The Morrigan’s hands). Years have past since Gomrath. Colin is a scientist at Jodrell Bank, obsessed with searching the stars for his sister Susan, but without any memory prior to his thirteenth birthday. I’m not going to tell you any more. You must learn it yourself, armed with nothing but your own anticipation.
But what I will say is that Garner casts a startling new perspective on his two earliest books, a perspective that similarly denies and confirms their events to a mundane reality. That to know his work and his life is to be constantly confronted with elements seen and known in other contexts. That at many points the story crosses the line of Red Shift (still my personal favourite of Garner’s books). That there are moments of strangeness, when the ‘reality’ of the story raises suspicions of something not quite real, and that those suspicions are correct.
Mostly, this story enters the undermind. The Aboriginal Dreamtime of Strandloper brings a shape to the mythological element of the story, retold through Garner’s masterful understanding and ability to translate folkmyth and fairy story. The story in both its halves is a surface, but in both story and reader it moves in depths that are not, perhaps, consciously accessible.
I look forward to a second reading, and to the many that will follow, each adding to the comprehension of Boneland. Make no mistake, it is a great book, a Great Book, and a fitting finality to everything Alan Garner has sought to say in his life.
It would be a lesser world without him.