Perhaps I should warn readers of this review that Louise Welsh is one of my all time favourite authors. NAMING THE BONES was therefore greeted with some excited anticipation in these parts. One of the things that I really like about Welsh's books is the dark, introspective nature of her characters and the settings, as well as irresistible Gothic quirkiness.
NAMING THE BONES is the story of Dr Murray Watson; academic, guilty lover, conflicted brother, writer of a poet's biography. Murray's love affair with Archie Lunan's writing had started with a slim paperback collection of poems. Lunan wasn't a very prolific poet, but who knows what he could have produced had he not died so strangely, so young.
Murray's research into Lunan's life is fuelled by a small, cryptic collection of papers stored in a cardboard box. An odd mixture of rambling jottings, memento's, an old address book, there's not a lot for Murray to go on. Small clues however do set him off on what is really a detecting job - finding out more about Lunan's life and his friends in a series of small steps, revealing very complicated and intertwined lives. Meanwhile Murray struggles with his failing relationship with his brother - an art installation which Murray feels is highly exploitative starts to create a rift between the brothers, which is exacerbated as Murray finds his brother is being unfaithful.
Welsh's earlier books have always had a bit of a twist, a touch of quirky and an elaborately Gothic feel to them. NAMING THE BONES doesn't quite start out like those earlier books, and Murray seems, particularly in this day and age, strangely normal. Including the lustful affair with his Head of Department's wife, Murray has relationship difficulties all over the place and he just seems somewhat naive and disconnected from the realities of life. Certainly his admiration of Lunan is a little odd to start off with, one short volume of poetry too insignificant to have had such a profound and long-lasting affect on such a renowned academic.
Given that NAMING THE BONES started off with less of the Gothic than normally expected, I was taken by how quickly the book become difficult to put down. This reader found herself increasingly involved in Murray's telling of his own tale, increasingly taken by his bafflement over Lunan's own relationships and why this man killed himself. Add to that Murray's own hamfisted methods of handling obsession, confrontation and disappointment and the story quickly becomes a less about researching a biography and a lot more about the mystery of Lunan and those around him.
Ultimately Murray takes himself off to the dreary, mysterious, damp, windy, threatening and even vaguely odd island of Archie's early life and death, and the resolution of the book takes place on this bleak, geographically and technologically isolated little island, with a good sprinkling of odd and normal locals, and a lot of rain, mud, wind and dark tracts of land.
This is exactly the sort of book that I just love. Cunningly witty, NAMING THE BONES is a mystery that's not immediately a mystery. A death that was explained, a sprinkling of odd clues and hints, and a whole lot more hidden under the surface of a lot lives.