It was ten years ago that Boneland was published and I fell upon it with more anticipation and enthusiasm than I’ve probably ever shown towards any book. And I wrote about it then, though I didn’t term it a review but instead a response. I couldn’t get anywhere near the intellectual or analytical when first exposed to it.
A bit more than ten years later, re-reading it as part of this retrospective of Alan Garner’s work, I think that I now understand the novel less than I did on that first, rapt occasion. Though I still think it is a work of genius, a book that even only on the surface level redefines the two preceding books that it transforms into a very much belated Trilogy, I am further away from comprehending Boneland on any level.
For the benefit of those not familiar with Alan Garner’s work, I’m talking about his first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisinga-men and The Moon of Gomrath, the two most conventional books of his career, and the two most lightweight. Both books concern the adventures of two children, Colin and Susan, who discover the world of magic inside the Cheshire landscape.
Garner intended the books to comprise the first two parts of a trilogy but his discontent with the two children, and with his own writing, during the composition of The Moon of Gomrath, led him to abandon that notion. No doubt the idea of writing a third book was one of those floated by his then-Agent and Publisher during the eighteen year drought that preceded Strandloper, but Garner finally came to decide that a third book was both right and necessary, and produced it during the year of The Weirdstone‘s Fiftieth Anniversary.
Do not read this expecting a book on the same level as the first two. Boneland is the completely different kettle of fish that we used to talk about. It centres in one half of its story upon Colin, now an adult, a scientist working at Jodrell Bank, an eccentric, a shaman, a man with psychological issues including a complete loss of memory from prior to the age of thirteen yet an eidetic memory from that point onwards.
We learn that his surname is Whisterfield and that he and Susan were twins, which is brand new information to us but, as per Neil Philip’s superb work of analysis of Garner’s writings, A Fine Anger, details that come from the very first, very-rejected draft of The Weirdstone. We will also learn exactly why he and Colin were sent to live in Alderley, with the Mossocks, but as this does not appear in any of the rejected drafts Philip was permitted to reproduce, we can’t know if that too derives from the initial concept (given the nature of that reason, which is because Colin and Susan’s parents had been killed in a plane crash, I suspect not and that if a reason was given at that very early stage it would have been considerably closer to the Callums’ introduction in Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday).
But Colin, and the continuation at so late a stage of his story, is only one strand in this book. The other takes place in an ancient, almost mythic time, the Stone Age, yet one that is anchored to the Cheshire of now. A seer – literally a See-er – whose ‘home’ is in Lud-cruck, the nowadays chasm of Ludchurch, or Lud’s Church, in Staffordshire, in the Dark Peak. We’re meant to see the two stories, which are interwoven, as parallel, though there are no direct correspondences between the two save that they are both figures with an existence in myth-time as well as their native ages.
Colin is, effectively, a shaman. He lives on Alderley Edge. He can never be away from it, cannot leave it overnight, cannot go to any place from which he cannot see it, where it is not observed, for if it is not observed it may change, or even disappear. The older shaman is a more primitive version of Will Buckley or Jack Turner, in that he ‘sees’ the animalistic Gods in the stars and the stones, and his daily release of them keeps the world from ending.
This is a world away from Buckley or Turner who are virtual priests of folk religions: the shaman has no followers or worshippers, he simply is and does, without adherents or the need for them. He stands between Life and oblivion.
But he is only one man and he is not immortal. The story needs to encompass a woman and a child, the latter of whom can be taught to understand and maintain the rituals after the shaman dies. The only woman and child who come to Lud-cruck, at the beginning, are already dead, of snow and ice: nothing the shaman can do can avert that until, at the end, he is adopted as a true teller by a small tribe. Religion begins, or so is my interpretation of it. The dream passes from stone and bone to symbols.
But those of us who are here for the conclusion of The Weirdstone have a tendency to treat this part of the story as extraneous, even though we know Alan Garner has never written anything extraneous in his life. We want Colin, and Susan, and what came next. And we get that, though not necessarily in a manner that we easily comprehend.
Professor Whisterfield. A very clever man, with a list of degrees as long as your arm in subjects as broad as the heavens he studies at Jodrell Bank, specifically M45, the Pleiades. Who has suffered from extensive mental problems almost all his life. Who believes crazy things and does crazy things. Who once when he was young lost both his parents and his twin sister and had experiences with the world of magic, but who has lost all memory of that time and that bygone era. Who is unconsciously looking for his sister who vanished, into the stars. Who is sufficiently clever, until now, to avoid getting to the bottom of discoveries that frighten him by being impossible to fathom.
I’m not sure whether or not it is an advantage to know what happened to Colin and Susan before the former’s amnesia took hold, especially as the end of The Moon of Gomrath seems to indicate that Susan remains on Earth.
The book begins in ambiguous manner: Colin is going under the anaesthetic. Though he comes out of it and insists on discharging himself to go home to his Bergli Hut on the Edge that day, against his Doctor’s very strong advice, certain aspects of what follow raise the question of whether the entire book takes place under the anaesthetic and, if so, whether Colin ever surfaces from it.
But home he goes, driven by a very helpful taxi driver, Bert, who will become a recurring character throughout, turning up whenever needed – and not necessarily when he has been summoned – to take Colin to and from his home. In the end, neither Bert nor his taxi firm actually exists. Neither too does Colin’s psychoanalyst, Meg Massey, who knows Bert of old.
Much of the book is the gradual working through Colin’s issues by Meg, who does house calls. For this, Garner used his own experiences of psychotherapy, as described by him in the essay ‘Inner Time’, from which it can quickly be seen how much of the techniques he has put down in the novel, and which gives raise to the question of whether he’s drawn directly upon his own sessions: he’s certainly more than captured the authenticity of a process I’ve never experienced. Meg slowly draws out of Colin what actually happened, the truth of what lay behind, or possibly just after The Moon of Gomrath, and the truly shocking experience of his ultimate rejection from the world of Magic that as warned but not experienced in the two children’s books, was so very dangerous to both Whisterfield Twins.
The story’s resolution is recollection, but the events recalled occupy a different plane of reality to the children’s books. It’s near impossible to wholly reconcile Boneland to its two predecessors without having to compromise the world of one or the other. Once this is achieved, both Meg and Bert disappear, as much figments as Susan.
Although there’s no direct suggestion of it in the book, and indeed she is positioned as a helpful character, not the reverse, we are encouraged to infer that Meg Massey is the Morrigan, though who Bert would be if that scheme applied I can’t begin to guess. But there are little indications: the M of both her names, Colin’s association of her with crows, the rhododendrons of Errwood Hall transplanted to her ‘surgery’, that put the link up to be thought about.
And belatedly, I notice that Meg’s surname, Massey, duplicates that of Sally in Thursbitch, though there no parallels between either the subject of the former book or the two characters. It’s almost mandatory in comic book Universes for two characters of the same surname to ultimately be related, but even in the world of prose fiction, an author rarely uses the same name in two or more books without intending to imply some level of connection. Coincidence is very rarely coincidence.
Finally, on this re-reading I was very vividly struck by Mag Massey’s unconventional behaviour throughout. Garner’s own psychotherapist was an unconventional man and this might be just a borrowing, but I found a lot of Meg’s conversation to be gratingly sarcastic and even contemptuous of Colin, especially when he was going on about esoteric knowledge he possessed. In fact, given that I’m currently also re-watching The Big Bang Theory, it struck me as being very much like everyone responding to Sheldon.
But Boneland is still an exceptional book. I have not yet read it often enough to talk myself out of my regard for it, though my comprehension is getting more tenuous the more I read it. As this post no doubt reflects: my apologies.