Remembering The Bones by Frances Itani

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Remembering The Bones by Frances Itani

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sharon Hall
Reviewed by Sharon Hall
Summary: A car accident leaves 80-year old Georgie immobilised and reflecting on her life as a daughter, mother, sister, wife and widow. A well written and moving account of four generations of a quiet, hardworking Canadian family.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-0340954003

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Georgina Danforth Witley was born on 21 April 1926, a day also notable as the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. Whilst growing up in Canada, Georgie was fascinated by the young Princess, and so is delighted when she is invited as a Commonwealth guest to an 80th birthday lunch at Buckingham Palace. Widowed and fiercely independent, Georgie sets off for the airport for her ten day trip to the UK. However, only a few minutes into her journey, the car leaves the road and is plunged into a ravine. She is thrown clear of her car, injured and out of sight, and is increasingly aware that no-one will miss her.

Hardly able to move, Georgie tries to occupy her mind by thinking through the names of bones that she had learnt from her favourite childhood book, Gray's Anatomy, which had belonged to her physician grandfather. She then starts to reflect on the quiet, determined lives of four generations of the Danforths: Great Dan, Georgie's grandmother, her mother Phil, her aunt Fred, her sister Ally, her daughter Case, and her husband Harry.

The women in the family are survivors. Great Dan loses her husband in World War I and Georgie and her family move back to live with her in the Danforth house just outside Wilna Creek. It is here that Georgie discovers her grandfather's library and the precious anatomy book, annotated with his three grand thoughts. Georgie's father, who is always referred to as Mr Holmes, is a distant figure who ran a hardware store and spread gloom throughout the house. Somehow, they manage to keep the store going through the depression of the 1920s and through World War II, but Mr Holmes becomes ill (his fatigue dampened us like a sodden cloak) and dies just after the war, leaving a house full of women.

Harry Witley, Georgie's husband, was born in London but was resettled in Canada at the age of 7 as a Home Child. He travels alone to rural Ontario to live in appalling conditions on a farm but manages to escape when he is 14 and finds a family to work for. He serves in World War II, but returns injured to Wilna Creek after the war, to work for a jeweller. He meets Georgie at a dance and they marry, although the US honeymoon is a disaster as he falls ill. Harry's childhood experiences leave scars, but they settle and have a family. They even travel after he has retired, going to the west coast of the US and to Europe. Harry has died, some three years' before, after an illness that has seen them both retreat in order to cope with the situation. Georgie discovers the hoards of string and elastic bands he has put by, all neatly labelled, and a cache of photographs hidden away. She muses that she never really knew him.

These reminiscences are flashbacks, woven into her struggle to get back to the car and to attract attention and be rescued. She rejoices when it rains so that she can assuage her thirst, remembers the walks she and Harry had in the same ravine, and laments how she misses her ordinary life (the sandwich, the cup of coffee, the radio). Interspersed with this, she wonders about the life of the famous woman with whom she shares a birthday and who may also be the only person who knows Georgie is missing.

Itani writes well, and movingly, particularly about grief. At her father's funeral, Georgie is told about her grandfather's funeral and the grief of her grandmother: Grand Dan sat with her head bowed whilst she listened to [their] memories … and then she laughed with a sudden, short bark. It was as if she was telling them that they knew nothing [about him] … she had run her hand down the muscles of his back … she knew that he buttered his rolls in the centre and not to the edge … she barked her laugh once more and it was a laugh of pain. There is also a wonderful passage about Harry bringing Georgie roses, which made me weep.

There were a few irritations. I felt as though the whole ravine setting was overly dramatic, although I must admit that it did get me thinking about what I would do and think about in the same situation. The major problem I had was the inclusion of wonderings about the Royal Family. I can see that sharing a birthday with a Princess might lead to a child to speculate about her own life in parallel with that of a future Queen, but would an 80 year old refer to her as "Lilibet"? (I know that is what her own family called the Princess as a child.) Georgie also speculates as to how the Queen coped sleeping apart from Prince Philip – a curious thing to wonder about whilst you are immobilised in a ravine. I know Itani is constrasting Georgie's quiet life with that of the Queen's, but it felt very laboured to me and I didn't need it in order to appreciate the Danforths and their stories. I also tired a little of the bones theme (they come up everywhere, not just as a mnemonic). I'll end my mild rant by saying I also thought that the shortening of all the main female characters' names to men's names was a bit, er, obvious and unnecessary.

It's definitely worth reading for the main story, though.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you liked this, you may enjoy The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams.

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Sue said:

I go back to the days before Elizabeth was Queen and I don’t find the use of 'Lilibet' unusual – it was used in the press on occasions. Strangely enough, Elizabeth became Lilibet, but Margaret was always 'Margaret Rose'.