Weirdstone and Gomrath are superb children’s novels, among the best of the last century. Their inventiveness, their use of myth, the wonderful rolling rhythms of the language, the thrilling sense of adventure and danger and supernatural fear, all combine to produce something truly memorable. And Boneland, though far from flawless, is an extraordinary sequel: it somehow manages simultaneously to be entirely different from and wholly consistent with its predecessors. Such a contradiction would probably please the author. It is a remarkable feat.
Colin, the child protagonist of the original stories, is now a forty-something astrophysicist still living in the myth-haunted space of Alderley Edge where the earlier books (and most of Garner’s works) were set. His twin sister vanished as a child (as was suggested at the conclusion of The Moon of Gomrath). Colin is obsessed by her. He is deeply troubled, possibly bipolar, certainly subject to manic periods. He can remember every moment of his life since the age of thirteen (when the previous novels ended) but nothing at all of what happened before that age. As Boneland begins he is clearly approaching a crisis, quite possibly a total breakdown.
The narrative shifts between a straightforward and realist description of Colin’s daily life, his travails at work, his singular home lifestyle, the counselling he undertakes with the mysterious psychiatrist Meg; and a dreamscape in which myth and time and sumptuous descriptive passages meld into a breathtaking otherworld. This takes place in some pre-lapsarian existence of our earliest ancestors and yet, at the same time, one feels its centre is in Colin’s consciousness, that troubled and tormented place. There is more than one time, there is more than one story, there is more than one moment. We are taken into a Nietzschean whorl of infinite return, time cycling and recycling, never linear, never simple. We spin round our mortal realm, we reach out into the stars, probing, searching, looking for clues, but what is truly out there is too far, too long, too remote for us to grasp. It is beyond. It is not, nor ever will be, us. The answers are there. The answers are nowhere.
This is the nature of the myth world into which Colin is thrust. And that we cannot – quite – grasp what is happening reflects the turmoil that Colin, too, must endure. There is a juncture where myth and history collide, and Boneland describes that space. It is a boundary, and as Colin explains: “Boundaries aren’t safe... They occupy neither space nor time. Boundaries can change apparent realities. They let things through.” These passages, then, are uncomfortable, unsettling, both unreal and hyper-real, as though the senses are operating at the edge of their experience.
Great fiction will always use the personal to explain the universal. But truly great fiction will use the universal to explain the personal. One thinks of Crime and Punishment, for example, which could not exist without the reader being aware of both the inner sensibilities of Raskolnikov and the outer, moral pressure which defeats him. Or Pincher Martin on his island, in his death. Or Suttree in the wilderness of his imagination balancing fears that are, at once, private and eternal, his dead twin and his dead self. In the character of Colin we have just such a conjunction of personal and universal; through him we come to a greater understanding of humanity while, at the same time, through the novel we come to better know an individual human being. Only the great writers can achieve this. Garner is a great writer.
I’m not convinced, however, that Boneland is a great novel. In particular, Garner has some difficulty with dialogue. It seems remarkable to me that someone with such an acute sense of the rhythms and beauty of language should have such a tin ear for dialogue. One gets the feeling that, in real life, Garner may be someone who thinks a lot but wastes little time on the trivia of chitchat. And that this matters in the novel points to a second problem: by consciously writing the main narrative in realist mode, these shortcomings in dialogue become all too apparent. As Ursula Le Guin points out in her perceptive review, the mixture of realism and fantasy is a brave literary choice. For the most part it succeeds, and it is certainly true that the prehistoric era passages grow in weight and depth and resonance as the novel progresses, but there remains a disjunction when a writer writes in realist mode and unnatural elements such as clunky dialogue intervene. I do not know what else Garner could have done, because I believe the overall approach he takes is both brave and correct, but the dialogue remains a problem with the novel.
In the end, though, I don’t believe it matters. Boneland stands as a fine piece of literature. It takes a true and honest approch to myth, far removed from elves and dragons and childish quasi-medieval posturing. Mythology is a serious enterprise, a generations-old attempt to explain the inexplicable: who we are, why we are, where we are, when we are, how we are, what we are. This is the true nature of myth, and it is a difficult and troubling thing. Those who use myth properly write dark novels – McCarthy, Golding, Coetzee et al. They know what myth is and they know its power. When asked in Boneland about myth and science, Colin, the astrophysicist, makes the perhaps startling declaration that they may have equal validity. Each is real in its own ways but “they occupy different dimensions”. If this isn’t the message of Cormac McCarthy I don’t know what is. And it is certainly the message of Alan Garner’s work, beautiful, wise and powerful as it is.