Boneland by Alan Garner
Review by Stuart E Wise
Fantasy Book Review Book of the Month, October 2012
If the sleeper wakes, the dream dies…
Professor Colin Whisterfield spends his days at Jodrell Bank, using the radio telescope to look for his lost sister in the Pleiades. At the same time, and in another time, the Watcher cuts the rock and dances, to keep the sky above the earth and the stars flying.
Colin can’t remember; and he remembers too much. Before the age of twelve years and nine months is a blank. After that he recalls everything: where he was, what he was doing, in every minute of every hour of every day.
But Colin will have to remember what happened when he was twelve, if he wants to find his sister. And the Watcher will have to find the Woman. Otherwise the skies will fall, and there will be only winter, wanderers and moon…
Okay, this is it, the book that I have been waiting thirty years for. After all this time I finally get to find out what happened to Colin and Susan, Cadellin Silverbrow, Fenodyree the dwarf and the evil Morrigan. At last, Alan Garner has given in to pleas made by legions of fans and written the final part of the Alderley trilogy… or has he?
Sorry to disappoint you, but if you buy this book (at an outrageous £16.99 for a hard back that is under 150 pages long), hoping against hope that Garner has written another YA fantasy to finish the story that began with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen you will be sorely disappointed.
This is neither a children’s book, nor a traditional continuation of the tale he left hanging at the end of The Moon of Gomrath. Instead, this is a convoluted chronicle of shamanistic magic, coupled with the rambling exploration of psychosis suffered by Professor Colin Whisterfield (Colin from the original books). Colin is now a world renowned astrophysicist, who struggles to remember what happened prior to his thirteenth birthday, leading to a number of sessions with mysterious psychiatrist, Meg (who may or may not be the Morrigan).
Did all of the things in the first two books actually take place, or did Colin invent them as part of a delusion created because of childhood trauma? In many areas, it is down to the reader to draw their own conclusions, which will be unsatisfying to those who like things a little more cut and dried.
Alan Garner has moved on considerably as a writer in the 50+ years since he first wrote the Weirdstone of Brisingamen. I got the distinct impression that this book is aimed at those readers, who experienced his early work decades ago and have been lamenting the fact that he never finished the trilogy ever since. Unfortunately with Boneland, Garner appears to stick two fingers up at those fans, because this is definitely not what they were hoping for.
Personally, as a huge fan for more than 30 years, I wanted a satisfying end to the trilogy, but more importantly, I wanted a book that I could share and enjoy with my 10 year old daughter, along with the first two Alderley Tales.
Unfortunately, this is not a story aimed at children or younger adults, but at people who have experienced life and become a little jaded by it. To me, the substitution of extended sections of shamanistic magic, for the (arguably) more childish fantasy of elves and dwarves from the first two books, gives this tome a far more mature voice. In addition, the questions over Colin’s mental stability and how it links to his recollections of adventure and magic, provide enough material for a doctoral thesis on childhood trauma,
There are many positive things to say about this book. Garner’s exceptional level of research blends superbly with the grounding that comes from being based in a real world setting. The sections on both psychosis and shamanism are also well realised, if somewhat difficult to follow in places; this is definitely not a story for inexperienced readers.
In fact I would go so far as to say it is one of the most complex, multi-layered books I have come across.
This is the literary equivalent of marmite for me. I loved the confusing nature of the fantasy and how Garner interwove the psychosis throughout the tale. However, I hated the fact that it was not the end to the trilogy that the fans of the Weirdstone of Brisingamen deserved.
Becky from UK
I found this site by a Google search for Boneland. It's becoming a discussion group of its own, so I hope you don't mind, being hijacked, Stuart! Well, for what it's worth, I've read Boneland four times now, and shall read it again soon, not because it was hard work (which it wasn't) but because I wanted to. Each reading is like a flower opening to reveal more petals. I think Euan and Amanda's remarks in particular were very interesting, though they all are. It made me see that death and redemption do seem to be Alan Garner's theme through all his books, though there's precious little in Elidor about redemption. I find it the darkest of all the novels, with no hope for Roland after those last depressing words just read the last paragraph aloud and you'll hear what I mean. But read the last page of Boneland aloud (Alan Garner is always best read aloud, not just the end bits) and listen to how Colin is saying that he's going to tell us (but tell us what?) and the other 'voices' of the ancient past are redemption itself. And acceptance. They remind me of Wilfred Owen's last (?) poem before he was killed, Strange Meeting with its reference to 'encumbered sleepers' underground 'too fast in thought or death to be disturbed'. And the ending. 'Let us sleep now.' Does Alan Garner want us to make the connection if we know of it? Boneland is such a wonderful, spiritual and soul enhancing book. I could go on, but I'd better not.
Euan from UK
Many great writers pursue a single theme in their work, and I see Alan Garner's as death and redemption. He achieves it fully in Strandloper and Thursbitch, but Boneland is, almost literally, the apotheosis. I don't see where he can, or will need to, go after Boneland.
Amanda from UK
And what a final page! Alan Garner's endings are always extraordinary, sometimes breaking free of grammar and syntax in their poetic force. Boneland's had me in tears, of joy and pity and anguish at the same time; a true catharsis.
Duncan from UK
And it's a commonplace that neither public nor publishers know what they want until it's there. Thank goodness for Alan Garner (and his editor.) He's always said that he has no concern for his readership when he's writing, which sounds haughty; but pandering to others is not the way to get innovation. No one could have seen Boneland coming, but now it's obvious and inevitable. Genius.
Paula from UK
I was at a conference once where Alan Garner was asked about how he tested the market before writing a book. His reply was a model of politeness, but he did reveal that every one of his novels, from Elidor to The Stone Book Quartet had been recommended for rejection by the publisher's readers on the same grounds "that it wasn't like the one before!" In each case, only his editor's faith overrode the advice. That's food for thought.
Nick from UK
Lesley, you're right. I happen to know Garner's editor for the bracket of books Elidor to The Stone Book Quartet, and she has said in the past that he is the easiest and most enjoyable and instructive of authors to work with, welcoming tough editorial criticism, even demanding it, but knowing when to stand firm. He brandishes no ego, nor does he give a moment's thought for reader or market. With him, the text is all. She says that, in her opinion, he single-handedly, but without intention, simply by writing what he had to write, altered the scope of "children's literature", rendering it almost meaningless, decades before the terms such as â€˜crossover' or â€˜YA' were thought of. The first two psychological prentice pieces of imagery, then the externalisation of inner tension through Elidor and The Owl Service to the turmoil of Red Shift, resolving the earlier work, followed by the sublime Stone Book Quartet, leading to Strandloper, Thursbitch and now Boneland â€”obvious, once they're there. Alan Garner is using his life to write a single book of many facets. No one is obliged to read any part of it, but neither are they right to complain, because, I suspect, he has no choice. I find him a close twin to Samuel Beckett, whom he quotes directly in Boneland (". . . fail again. Fail better.")
Lesley from UK
I'm with most people on this one. A masterpiece... an outstanding achievement... but lets think for a moment. What is the point of a book review? The answer is that it depends on the audience. A book review is offered into a particular context. It's fine to say that it isn't a book to take on the beach. It's also fine to say that it isn't the book 'we' wanted. If that is how it is, that's how it is. It's also fine to have our hopes dashed... imperative that we do. Thank you for the review, you say a lot about what the book is, and as much about what the book isn't. That is important and necessary. There are plenty of erudite reviews around written by committed fans of Alan Garner (pun intended). Sometimes us lesser mortals want something in plain English that is a genuinely helpful guide to those people who are looking to buy a Christmas present for a niece or someone. It isn't the book that many would have expected from having read the first two. I'm glad, personally, but it's helpful to know. The only criticism I do have about Stuart's review is that he makes an assumption about how and why Garner writes. Garner has said himself that he writes the book that has to be written, or words to that effect. He is not a writer who writes for a particular market. It's unhelpful to criticise him being other than consumer focused, though perhaps its understandable given the world we inhabit these days. I hope that he has many more books in him and that he doesn't succumb to customer demand. Something I think he has, and he won't.
Jacqueline from UK
Boneland continues the literary ambitions first established in Red Shift, and executed so beautifully in Thursbitch and The Stone Book Quartet, and the rest of Garner's list. It is a mature telling of a complex story that has developed over years, rather than a capping off of two books that, while being wonderful books, had different ambitions for language and literature relevant to the times they were written in (and the place that the author was in!) When we love something, we want it to continue but we'd be unreasonable to think that Garner shouldn't develop his work because we want much of the same. Weirdstone was the reason I started to read science fantasy, but it's not as good a book as Boneland (even with the first-reading confusions and wrong-footings). And the way he makes Jodrell Bank a character rather than just a setting, it's wonderful! I'm thankful of the gift of Garner's writing; there's not enough literature in contemporary writing, especially science fiction/science fantasy.
Sue from UJ
I must agree with the others. If all you want is something for the beach or to pass the time during a train journey or while commuting on the tube, Boneland isn't worth the price. But Alan Garner must have been to hell and back to get this book, and if you're prepared to weep and laugh and be silent by turns and to have your heart and mind permanently enriched it's surely merits the cost of a couple of bottles of wine.
Ruth from UK
Stuart, you are not alone. I've made a detailed (as yet unpublished because unfinished) study of Alan Garner's work and its effect on modern literature. He also creates a great deal of interest on the Yahoo site, of which I'm a member http://groups.yahoo.com/group/alangarner/ and there is the encyclopaedic Unofficial Website, http://alangarner.atspace.org/ which is where I found you. My personal opinion of Boneland is that it's a masterpiece, but what is more interesting is that nothing of Garner's before has caused such a debate, which shows no sign of diminishing, and that's saying a lot.
Gordon from UK
I agree with Karen that Alan Garner is a poet, but above all he is a SYMPHONIC writer, and you don't listen to Brahms, Beethoven or Mozart once only. Each time brings deeper understanding and fresh connections. I've read Boneland five times, not because I was bewildered but because I was drawn in to the music. This makes the book 745 pages, at the moment, which is not bad for the money.
Karen from England
If it's value for weight you want, rather than content, you can get 512 pages of J.K. Rowling's A Causal Vacancy from Amazon for £9. Seriously, though. Alan Garner is a poet as much as a novelist and Boneland is a poem. The book is also a very beautiful object, so if it's text you want, and only text, Kindle would be better.
Joe from UK
All you're really saying is that Alan Garner hasn't written the book you wanted or expected. Why, and how, should he or could he? He doesn't know you. He doesn't know me. Yet I think Boneland is not only his greatest achievement, but one of the finest pieces of literature I've met. True writers write only what they can, not what others think they ought. And the price and the length of the book are irrelevant if what's in it is infinite and beyond price. Art isn't costed or measured by the metre. I like Marmite.
What did you think about Boneland?
Submit your own reader review and award the book the rating you think it deserves.