Map of Blue Book Balloon

19 November 2020

#Review - Bone Harvest by James Brogden

Design by Julia Lloyd

Bone Harvest
James Brogden
Titan Books, 17 November 2020
Available as: PB, 492pp, audio, e
Source: Advance PB copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9781785659973

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Bone Harvest to consider for review.

For more information about the book, see the Titan Books 
website here.

Bone Harvest was originally scheduled to appear in May, but like much else this year, covid-19 had its way with those plans and so it is with us in November. That delay may though add poignancy to this story, a thought that struck me when watching the TV coverage of the lockdown Remembrance ceremonies and in particular, of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey.

Bone Harvest is a story of folk horror, but as it ranges from the trenches of the Western Front in 1916 to the deceptive calm of rural Wales and the fruitful labour of a group of allotment holders, the most gut-wrenching scenes are of distinctly un-supernatural warfare, blood and slaughter.

"When on the road to sweet Athy
A stick in the hand, A drop in the eye
A doleful damsel I heard cry
Johnny I hardly knew ye..."

In counterpoint to that unknown warrior, Brogden gives us the story of one man who survived this slaughter, but transformed. The man known only as "the deserter" (well, he borrows other names, but they are not his) has been forged in that nightmare of steel, blood and noise. While he has physical wounds they haven't made him, like Johnny, unrecognisable to his sweetheart - rather his spiritual wounds have made him unrecognisable to himself. He doesn't know his name, or remember who or what he is. His old self is gone, erased by the thunder of the guns, and all that remains is that identity: deserter. 

While we shouldn't judge that desertion, his erasure has taken something from him, something which allows him, in the years and decades that follow, to become a different thing, a thing still bent on survival. Brogden will evoke supernatural horrors, but it is the human agency at the centre of things that dominated the book for me.

It is a book, as I've said, that offers great contrasts in atmosphere and theme. Alongside the deserter, who's established as a character in the first quarter or so, we meet Dennie Keeling, a woman devoted to her allotment and to her dog Viggo. She has been devoted to her friend Sarah, but Sarah is dead now - we'll learn in good time what that event has to do with the rest of the story. Dennie may or may not have a dash of the psychic in her and may or may not be experiencing the first signs of dementia (creating a real sense of tension when she begins seeing and hearing things). She seems oh so vulnerable when dark forces appear and begin to manipulate Dennie's friends and neighbours on the allotments. A cat and mouse game ensues, Dennie acting as the reader's eyes and ears to detect what is going on. We have some advantages from that early section of the story, but it's hard to fit that in with what seems to be going on now, in the part of the story set in 2020. Brogden is content to tell his story slowly, letting his shadowy cult act in line with the dictates of the moon and the seasons, as befits a story of horticulture, of planting and reaping, rather than trying to force things in a hot-house. 

If you're the sort of reader that wants to press on quickly to the final denouement, you may get a little impatient in this part of the story. It's not that there isn't action, but things seem to move quite slowly. I'd really, really urge you to be patient though - if you want drama, then the final part of this book delivers it with aplomb. Our deserter hears the sound of the guns again and gathers an army of sorts - and many secrets are revealed.

Bone Harvest is well written, very readable, with beautifully imagined characters (even the deserter is sympathetic, to a point; many have a satisfying moral ambiguity, doing bad things for rational and understandable reasons) and, like this author's previous books, integrates its theme of ancient paganism seamlessly with the mundanity of modern life. It has a great sense of place too, and one particular scene towards the end - you'll know it when you reach it - had me in tears.

Brogden's previous book, The Plague Stones, published in 2019, focussed on the outbreak of a virulent plague. It's with some trepidation that I wait to see what connection with reality his latest will have - but I know one thing: there's a set of allotments across the lane from my house, and I'll be giving them a miss for the next weeks.




No comments:

Post a Comment