Let’s start off with what Boneland isn’t: despite sharing a primary character with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, beloved children’s novels known as The Alderley Tales that were published in 1957 and 1964, this is very much an adult novel not intended for the pleasure of children whatsoever. Indeed its tone is more akin to what the late Robert Holdstock did in his Ryhope Wood series than anything else Alan Garner has done excepting Thursbitch and Strandloper.
Fortunately I have not read The Alderley Tales as the two much earlier novels are called. I will listen to them since Naxos has done them as audiobooks, because I’m now curious as to how this story started oh so long ago. And I must say that many of this work’s reviewers (and fans of the previous novels) would have been fairer reviewers if they had treated this as the separate work it indeed is.
That primary character is Colin, now fifty years older than in The Alderley Tales, and he’s convinced he’s going mad. It’s important to know that Garner thinks that The Alderley Tales were ‘very poor on characterization’ as he said in a 1989 interview, but Boneland is not. Indeed Colin and all characters here feel like real individuals, a result of good writing by the author and superb voicing by the narrator Robert Powell who, as Naxos notes correctly, ‘delivers Garner’s poetic prose with the conviction and understanding that come from being a longtime collaborator with the author. Powell’s Lancashire accent is especially good in the scenes of dialogue between Colin and his psychiatrist, Meg, who is determined to get to the bottom of Colin’s fascination with Celtic magic.’
(Side note: as with Garner’s The Owl Service, music from the Naxos back catalog is used here to great effect.)
It is a very tight tale with just three primary characters — Colin, Meg, and an unnamed narrator living at some point in the distant past. Powell’s voicing is so superb that each feels like an actual individual to me. There’s an echoing effect used on the narration by the third character to give a slightly eerie feel.
Colin is either quite mad or has had a very strange life. He is under the care of Meg, a therapist, who is trying to get him to deal with his belief that he has a sister who disappeared when they were still children. Colin thinks he’s insane, Meg thinks he’s not quite there and she wants him to finally face whatever trauma he’s refusing so far to deal with. Oh and he has an ability to recall literally everything in his life after twelve years and nine months but nothing before that time. Or so he says.
The other story is the life and death of what sounds to be a shaman. It’s an amazing story that I’ll say nothing about. All you need to know is that it takes place where Colin lives but that’s true of everything Garner does as his use of true geography in a story is intrinsic to what happens in all his stories including The Stone Book Quartet.
If you hear this story told as it here and you’ve not read the earlier novels, you’ll no doubt leave quite puzzled as to what exactly happened. Did Colin have a sister, or did he, as the result of some trauma as a child, just imagine had a sister? Why is Meg so determined to get him to confront his past self?
The ending will surprise you and I’ll not say why as that’d spoil it for you. I will say that many of those who had read (and deeply loved) The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath many years ago weren’t terribly happy with this conclusion to the story as it suggests things weren’t as they appeared to be. It’s neither a neat resolution, nor is it an upbeat ending. Garner in the end leaves it up to us to decide what happened oh so long ago.
One final note: this was originally to be voiced by Philip Madoc, a Welshman who had lived in the area of England where all three novels are set. He died in 2011 before he could do so. I think the use of a different narrator given the fifty years in time between the first two books and this one actually makes for a better theatre of the mind.
Now I’m off to start my listening to The Alderley Tales. That should be interesting!