Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh

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Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Ignore the occasional contrivance to be expected from the genre and you're left with a deft plot, believable characters and a suitably sinister atmosphere, all delivered with a literary flourish. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 389 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Canongate
ISBN: 978-1847672568

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Murray Watson is a Doctor of English Literature embarking on a year-long sabbatical to pursue his long-held dream of writing the definitive biography of Archie Lunan and, as a specifically intended by-product, restore Lunan's poetry to its rightful place in the high canon of Scots creativity.

Lunan died young. Obviously. It's practically de rigueur for a romantic poet, is it not?

He compounded this romanticism by the manner of his death: he took out an inadequate boat that he scarcely knew how to sail into the stormy night waters off the island of Lismore and was ne'er seen again, live nor dead. Did he kill himself? Was he murdered? Or stupid, or just unlucky?

Watson wants to know. He's also hoping, as you might imagine, that somewhere in the unread papers held by disinterested libraries and forgotten by friends and family there might lurk the great undiscovered poems. The one slim volume ever to be published does not seem enough to justify the evident talent. But it's the life that interests him. This, he believes, has to have informed the poetry, provided the genesis for the expression.

His department head disagrees. Surely it's the work that matters, and it should be allowed to stand alone. He fought against Watson's sabbatical, but lost.

Thus is the stage set for the Academic to delve into an ever-deepening, and darkening, mystery. What really did happen to Lunan, and why? The lover refuses to talk, but friends and colleagues and acquaintances begin to surface in the most unlikely places, only to – quite often – be found to be dead or dying. Written evidence is scant, although there is one box of treasure in Edinburgh University's library that raises more questions than it answers, but at least suggests the beginnings of a trail… a trail which, naturally, will lead to Lismore: a dark windswept rain-swept bleakness that provides the perfect backdrop for the modern gothic.

Ignore the Victoriana/Doylesque naming of her investigator as Dr Watson, a ploy only slightly obscured by her never actually referring to him as such, and you'll find Welsh's writing to be gothic in atmosphere and setting only. Much of the action is played out in the dark, in the rain, in the fog. In the action itself however, she's bang up to date. Edinburgh is a place of creepy cul-de-sacs and cheerful high streets, peopled by the tourists, the affluent intelligentsia and the homeless and hapless. Her characters are romantics and realists and lovers and bastards and it is often to tell which is who, or why.

She sets Watson's investigations against the backdrop of his messy personal life. A not-quite-hidden affair with his department head's wife comes to an abrupt end, from which his libido recovers remarkably quickly, which of course has no impact whatsoever on the judgemental response to his brother's ex-curricular activity. Meanwhile, the said brother is creating greater sibling dissonance by virtue of his current project which draws heavily on their father's final days.

Her version of academia draws heavily on the stereotypical, closed-circuit, spite that we outsiders assume to exist, but seldom witness on our own forays into the quads or redbrick halls (or in my case concrete corridors). Of course there are petty jealousies, both personal and professional, and a certain amount of crawling and backstabbing but no more, I suggest, than in any other industry. The campus has more in common with The Office than is generally recognised.

Still, it serves its purpose here in making for a plausible back-story to several of the less-plausible coincidences.

Those coincidences cannot be avoided. This is genre fiction. It is genre at its most literary, deftly crafted, perfectly toned best – but genre all the same. It is a mystery thriller. It has its share of sex and death and misdirection and danger, its red herrings and uncanny meetings, its happy happenstances and convenient mechanical failures. And it's none the worse for any of them.

The two stories run in a parallel better handled than is over the case. Archie's story, as it is slowly uncovered, is perfectly woven into Watson's increasingly chaotic, potentially dangerous situation, as he does the uncovering. There is none of the jarring that often results when an author tries to tell two tales at once. Welsh has taken the sensible tack of staying with Watson throughout. With few scene setting exceptions, we only know what he knows.

This sound decision holds the book together. It allows the tension to build, and the confusion and despair to creep in around the edges.

There are moments of humour and absurdity to break the pace, but few of pure joy in a book that is as bleak as Lismore winter, but also as filled with the sharp fire of the human spirit. A lot of bad things happen, for all sorts of reasons, but you need to know before you can understand. Beyond a slickly plotted investigative thriller, lies a novel that questions loyalty and family and what, ultimately, we think we need from life and whether we should be prepared to fight for it.

Lightly dusted with lyricism and poetry, grounded in mud and soulless encounters, this is thriller writing elevated to art.


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

Further reading suggestion: For more sinister goings on in out of the way places, head to Canada for The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre, or to Finland for At the Edge of Light by Maria Peura. Or if specifically Scottish mystery is more your bag, Ian Rankin could keep you entertained for a month of Sundays.

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