‘Nothing if not an ambiguous creature’ – Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh is an interesting read – but there is something of the Déjà vu about the book – which I will come to later in the review.

In The Cutting Room she explored snuff photography with one of the best gay male protagonists this reviewer has ever come across in literature – the book was damn sexy, intelligent, disturbing and she wasn’t afraid to shy away from examining humanity’s hideous past. The novel was intense, had a poetic sensibly and a rarity to see a writer tackling something so bold with gravitas and some seriously twisted black humour. Afterwards I sought out the dull and rather disappointing Tamburlaine Must Die – Welsh should stay in the present, historical fiction isn’t her strong point. Bullet Trick was another gem – an amalgamation of magic and murder tourism with a particularly noirish air and a mean sting in its tail.

Her latest effort is nothing if not an ambiguous creature. Better than both Bullet Trick and Tamburlaine Must Die but nowhere near as creatively macabre and haunting as The Cutting Room. The story also seems to heavily borrow from another source – or maybe this is my imagination? Murray Watson, a lecturer of English at Glasgow University is obsessed by a dead poet Archie Lunan and desperate to discover why said poet only had one volume of work published.  His investigations into the death – and possibly a means of resurrection with a book deal on the writer’s life – lead him to the bereaved wife of a suicide expert, colleagues who knew the doomed poet who may or may not know more then they are saying about the circumstances of his death – a shady decrepit drunk obsessed by the occult and eventually to the windswept Isle of Lismore and the craven widow of Archie Lunan – who is now a withering recluse and writer of popular paranormal fiction.

I use the word ambiguous because Welsh is a very deceptive writer – she has a brisk way of writing, which sweeps you along, her characters are all never far away from slipping into the abyss and even the most repugnant characters are sympathetic – even when their actions are nothing short of despicable, you still care about them – especially Murray’s media whore of a brother who uses footage of his father –who is disintegrating from a degenerative disease – for an art installation.

Any Cop?: Ok, so coming back to the familiar aspects of this novel.  In her latest, there are a few eerie parallels between Naming the Bones and Cathi Unsworth’s The Singer. Maybe this is entirely coincidental – both are writers of crime fiction and to an extent, both novels are fictitious accounts of investigative journalism with the focal point being about characters exploring the neglected work of two geniuses, one a singer and the other a poet. There is no denying Welsh and Unsworth are both very different stylistically – but as more and more of Welsh’s characters reveal themselves, they seem to be near-doubles of Unworths and the plot continues following the same course, it is undeniably similar – as I said earlier, eerily so. Maybe its just a coincidence, though that seems unlikely when both are female writers of crime fiction. It is doubtful Welsh is unaware of Unsworth’s work. Naming the Bones leans more towards Gothic Horror than post-punk Noir and yet I felt like I’d been here before.

Alan Kelly

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