How on earth am I supposed to respond to Boneland, Alan Garner’s completion of a trilogy begun with the Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath nearly 50 years ago?
Boneland tells a the story of Colin, one of the siblings at the centre of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. Colin is an astro-physicist and clearly a genius whose life centres around the radio telescope of Jodrell Bank and a dimly perceived mission as a kind of guardian of Cheshire’s Alderley Edge, the scene of certain events in his childhood that have vanished from his memory. He also has Asperger’s syndrome and we meet him on the edge of a titanic personal struggle against mental breakdown. Colin’s story is juxtaposed against an early, prehistoric inhabitant of the Edge with an explicitly mythical or metaphysical mission in maintenance of the landscape. This unnamed figure is fighting a far more literal kind of breakdown, one that threatens to swallow not only his life and future but the whole of his world.
The earlier books were written for children (would the modern marketing classification be ‘young adult?) but Boneland is definitely written for grown-ups, not so much because of any inherent sex and violence, but because of its density and unashamed difficulty. This is quite a gnarly text. Its centre-piece, for example, is thirty or pages or so of intense dinner table conversation between a man who is about as psychologically damaged as it is possible for a human being functioning at a high level to be and his therapist. They touch on myth, archaeology, geology, physics and much else. They also drink a great deal of wine. There is hysteria and a sort of geographical menstrual flood.
And yet, this is expecting no more of us, the readers of those earlier texts, now twenty, thirty, forty years older, than the Weirdstone and The Moon did of us as children. If the earlier books, written at the inception of Garner’s career, were full of folklore, information, terror, gnawing dark and, yes, violence, the violence and terror at the heart of Boneland is yet darker. It is the fear of utter dissolution.
That isn’t what shook me most about Boneland as a narrative, however. The real, heart-rending core of the book is an express of unbelievable grief and loss so powerful that, half way through, I wondered if I’d be able to finish it. What’s trickier to engage with are the mythological underpinnings to Colin’s story. There are nods to the Triple Goddess, prehistoric humanity’s relationship with the stars and a compact, granite like erudition over such a hugely ranging area of subject matter that I could really have done with a text two or three times as long to help me make sense of it all. Like Alderley in winter, this isn’t a book that suffers fools gladly.
Still, perhaps I should remember the admonishment of Stevie Smith and simply ‘read it again then’. Ultimately, this is a book carved out of three landscapes – that of the modern Alderley of Colin’s experience and his struggle to maintain it in a wider context, the beautifully rendered Alderley of the deep, mythological past and behind these, the relentless challenge of Garner’s intellect. It isn’t a novel that has much time for character development – the business it is about is too urgent for this. At worst, the characters are placeholders for larger meanings. At best, as with Colin, they are beautifully, precisely-expressed cyphers to themselves. If nothing else, it left me convinced that there was the serious business of someone’s soul at stake here.
Would I recommend it? Unreservedly. But don’t expect any elves or goblins. They’re still there but they’re buried deeply and digging them out will demand a lot of you.