|Design by Julia Lloyd|
I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance e-copy of Near the Bone via NetGalley to consider for review.
Near the Bone is an exciting and absorbing, if at times harrowing, read. Above all it's a MEGA page turner - if you pick this one up, you'd best clear your diary for a few hours because you won't want to put it down again until the last page.
We first meet Mattie, out in the woods where she lives with her husband William on a remote mountain in the US, on an errand. Mattie discovers something new and strange. Mattie debates what to do. Should she stop and investigate, at risk of making herself late? Or should she hurry on? We soon see that her dilemma is framed entirely in terms of what William would want her to do.
She's terrified of getting it wrong.
And she will get it wrong. Because William is a manipulative abuser who has Mattie at his mercy. ('She wasn't going to think of how strange it was, because William told her what to think and she was sure he wouldn't like her thinking on this').
I won't give much more detail on that, because it would be spoilery. Henry reveals the detail of what has happened to Mattie slowly, layer by layer, building up a picture and showing us Mattie's unenviable life, every detail calculated to keep her under William's sway: starved, beaten, denied any warmth or humanity ('That's why William was always starving you, always working you when you were exhausted. Without food and sleep you couldn't think, couldn't fight him...') Much of her own history is lost to her, and it is only revealed as we learn about it, over a harrowing and desperate period of two or three days which turns her life inside out.
I also do not want to be too specific because there are some really dark themes here - themes of abuse and control - which may be triggering for some. For me, it was a mark of how good Henry is at spinning a story that even in the darkest moments I wasn't tempted to put this book aside. I had to know what would happen. It helps that, alongside the tense drama between Mattie and William, there is another strand here - that discovery of Mattie's leads to glimpses of something strange and deadly in the woods. Something that has been killing the local game. Something with uncanny grace and strength, and a greater than animal cunning.
William becomes obsessed with this thing, whatever it is, seeing it almost as a supernatural test of him. That might have given Mattie some respite except that is short-lived as other complications come into her narrow world. And the one things she has learned in her life with William is that complications are trouble, and trouble is HER FAULT.
This story was creepily, scarily believable, William a true monster but one who seems, increasingly, familiar, his attitudes those of men that we all know about, his sense of entitlement and dominance recognisable from tragedies that happen aria and gain. The comparison of man and monster is explicit: William in the cabin is bad, the beast outside apparently worse, and Mattie is trapped between the two of them. For other writers that dilemma might seem overdone, but Henry's writing gets under the skin of both Mattie and William so well that it just seems, well, true.
This is both a cracking good read and a real exploration of human darkness. Not a dark fairytale, despite the overtones of big-bad-monster-in-the-wood, but much more uncomfortable, closer to home and raising urgent questions.
Finally, they say never judge a book by its cover but... that cover!
For more information about Near the Bone, see the Titan website here.