I’ve wanted to for weeks, since I finished the final part of Alan Garner’s Weirdstone trilogy, but I’ve been hesitating. It felt vaguely sacrilegious, like shouting in a crypt or shaking a friend awake when they’re smiling at their dream. Sometimes (perhaps you get this too), I’m reluctant to delve into the machinery of the books that impact me most deeply. I don’t want to look too close in case their effect collapses, quantum-like, under my observation, In case I wake the sleeper, and the dream dies.
The existence of this post is a testament to two convictions. The first is that this book is pressing so hard against the inside of my skull right now that it will start to run out of my tear ducts if I don’t talk about it. The second is that Garner’s dream is much, much too strong for me to kill.
This isn’t a review, by the way. I don’t know whether Boneland is a good book or not, I’m not sure the term really means anything for a story with so few comparators – an adult novel to conclude a children’s trilogy, written fifty years after the first two volumes came out. I do know there were times it stole my breath.
A quick plot summary then - for all the good that will do us. Boneland picks up Colin Whisterfield decades after the end of the Moon of Gomrath (1963), which saw his sister Susan disappear. He’s become a brilliant but unfocussed astronomer working at a British radio telescope. He’s suppressed all memories from the first two books, but on some level, just below consciousness he’s still searching the stars for his lost sister. Boneland follows him as - both inside and outside of therapy - his memories breach back into his conscious mind. Meanwhile, in what feels like a deeper ancestral memory, a man dances and sings and carves images into a rock face. He performs these rituals rooted in faith to keep the soul of the place he lives in alive.
It’s difficult to know how much Boneland’s impact on me owes to the highly specific circumstances of its creation. I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath more than 15 years ago (though I’ve reread the former since). Most of Garner’s readers will have gone as long or longer since reading the first two books. Their contents stirred me hugely when I read them, but all their vivid details were deeply silted under sediments of later memories and adult cares.
I have never been placed into such acute sympathy with a book’s protagonist as when Colin’s memories erupt back into his mind. Weirdstone’s witches and Gomrath’s Wild Hunt rushed back to me at exactly at the same time. That little piece of me that is still the boy that read those books clamped his hand round my heart in shock, and refused to let go. This book haunted me, literally, and it used the fragments its older siblings had left in my mind to do it.
But Boneland went further. Having got me and Colin in synch, it used that symbiosis. Reading the book was an intensely personal experience. Its tale of a man dredging himself for lost memories and of a dreamer battling desperately against the dying of his dream felt like it was talking to me, and about me. It tapped into the bit of me that’s scared that I have lost something since I first read Weirdstone in the harsh light of my Grandfather’s study lamp, the part that thinks I should have clung tighter to that bone deep belief that magic is real and that a place really can have a soul. It’s a dream that would look like madness had I held onto it any longer, but its echoes have never really left me. It's why I do what I do.
That’s why (and if you’ve read it, you’ll understand this) I found the end of Boneland one of the most moving reading experiences of my life.
This sleeper, probably, is as awake as he’ll ever be, but the dream is still very much alive.
Tom Pollock is a shameless prevaricator who invents monsters and may once have gotten into trouble for blinding a US spy satellite with the glare from his shiny, shiny head. His debut novel, The City's Son, is out now from Jo Fletcher Books. He (fair warning) puns a lot on twitter at @tomhpollock. His review of Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen can be found here.