‘Where myth and the quotidian meet and normality founders’ – Boneland by Alan Garner

Like many an Alan Garner fan, I was all a-tremble at the release of the third part of what’s suddenly become the Weirdstone trilogy. Colin and Susan and Cadellin and dwarves and Alderly Edge! If you’re not in the know, the previous two books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath) are set in the Cheshire countryside, around Alderly and Macclesfield, and draw heavily on UK folklore – especially myths local to Cheshire and the North West – to spin a couple of darkly fantastical stories around the misadventures, if that isn’t too flippant a term for these frankly terrifying books, of a pair of preteens and the magical beings they encounter and awaken. They’re kids’ books, sure, but they’re full of evil and death and a dark grandeur that’s both horrific and compelling, that stands up magnificently to rereading as an adult, and that boasts few of the concessions to safety and happy endings that often characterises fiction for a younger audience. Boneland now picks up the story three or four decades later, so that we meet Colin as an adult – and, fittingly, then, this is an adult book, making it a real event for the fans who grew up in Garner’s world and now get the chance to revisit it.

Of course, it’s hardly that simple. Adult Colin is in the middle of a nervous breakdown. An astrophysicist working at Jodrell Bank, he’s obsessively studying the stars in the hope that he’s going to find traces of Susan, his sister who vanished at the age of twelve. Colin has an eidetic memory, but no recollection of his childhood; he knows he’s lost Susan, but doesn’t know how. Whilst by day, he’s working with a therapist trying to regain his equilibrium and his memory, by night he’s a shamanic figure, wandering the Edge and a mystical cave in attempt to hold the very Earth together. The narrative oscillates between these poles: the matter-of-fact business of motorbikes and analysis, and the ancient archetypal underground of wolves and primitive man and magic.

Thematically it’s fascinating, and Garner’s blend of mythic landscapes and technology is compelling. This is the story of a child once part of a magical world and now, not only is he dismissed from it, but it’s taken his sister from him: No wonder adult Colin is having psychological problems. As weird as Boneland is, its unhappiness is the logical fallout for the child banished from Alderly’s underground Eden. But, of course, Garner isn’t whipping the magical carpet out from under us; ever since The Moon of Gomrath, we knew that Susan wasn’t destined to stay on Earth. And where else for Colin to go, but to a radio-telescope and the scientifically accessible wonders of the universe? And the therapeutic process is another site where myth and the quotidian meet and normality founders. The blend of reality and unreality was what made the original two books so strong, and that’s carried on here.

But did I like it? The more I mull it over, post-reading, the more I’m impressed by Garner’s intelligence and imagination. Despite my anticipation, I’d been a little wary of middle-aged Colin knocking on Cadellin’s gates and crawling belly-first into a cave of evil-doers; what Garner’s done instead is much more clever and much more interesting. But, as a read, I found it less than satisfactory; the back-and-forth between Colin’s mythic dream-life and his reality felt very drawn-out. The shamanic passages were somewhat inaccessible and the therapy sections were irritating. Colin’s idiosyncrasies and torments felt psychologically accurate, but tiresome to read, and Meg, his therapist (though it gets more complicated than that if you read the book), annoyed me; while Colin works as a portrait of a man destroyed by his very peculiar past, there’s little in his story to sustain a novel-length narrative – even a rather short one, and Meg – who, granted, is playing her own part – reads as little more than a cipher – the hearty, anti-intellectual, Good Will Hunting therapist – while Colin’s emotional issues are played out as Will meets Rain Man, both of which felt lazy and unnecessary.

Any Cop?: As a stand-alone text, unlike the previous two volumes, I’d say Boneland would be fairly inaccessible to the casual reader, but then, it’s unlikely a casual reader will pick it up. As part of the trilogy, it’s not the most satisfying book; but then, again, Garner’s always been enigmatic and resisted neat endings or contained worlds. The best of this book is in its poeticism – the shaman Watcher keeping the world going – but if that’s not for you (and it’s not really for me) it might be best avoided. All that said, though, for fans of the earlier books, it’s worth a read for the sake of completion, and the issues it raises (the futures of magical children, for one) are pretty fascinating. A tricky one.

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