Mila and the Bone Man, Lauren Roche
To say that author Lauren Roche has taken on a mammoth undertaking with MILA AND THE BONE MAN is possibly one of the bigger understatements this reviewer has uttered. There is so much happening in this coming of age story, which is more than just that - it's an exploration of consequences, a pathway from child to adulthood that has been profoundly impacted by trauma, it's about difference, acceptance, friendship, damage, and grief.
Every year the New Zealand Crime Fiction awards (Ngaio Marsh Awards) invariably present us with something that takes a different viewpoint from the standard crime and resolution formula. MILA AND THE BONE MAN is, in the main, a beautifully written exploration of the consequences of crime, particularly on a young woman whose early life is directed by the actions of others. The slight qualifier on the writing style in this review refers mainly to some passages of dialogue which are stiff and unnatural, with a tendency for repetition and, for want of a better description, an obvious tendency to linger on scenes around death. Some of this most definitely threw the pacing of the novel out a little, taking the reader from progression to meandering repetition. Whilst these issues remained with this reader, it didn't distract terminally from the undertaking at the core of this novel - the recovery from grief, the haunting sadness of a young woman coming of age withdrawn and solitary, the impact of shocking crimes, and the beauty of difference and friendship.
Alongside the struggles of Mila, the character of Tommy, that quirky boy next door, that makes models from bones, was brilliant. A different boy, neuro-diverse, content with his lot, comfortable enough in his life to draw Mila back to home and safety, his depiction was heartbreakingly glorious.
The author has really bitten off a lot in MILA AND THE BONE MAN, and has done a sterling job at nailing a lot of the issues that she's tackling. A little less in the mix might have helped, as some things, deserving of exploration, ended up pushed to the side. But maybe life is just a heap of muck that you have to wade through, pushing bits around, and behind you, hoping to find friends like Tommy who are willing to take up the shovel on the other side of the pile.
Straddling old world and new, Mila and the Bone Man explores the corrosive power of guilt, the solace to be found in the natural world, and our capacity to heal as well as hurt.
Set in the forest in northern New Zealand, Mila is a young woman descended from healers. A family death causes her terrible guilt and sets her on a path away from home and to the distant city.
Her friend Tommy, the quirky boy next door who makes models from bones, helps to bring her home, where she belongs.