I am not at all sure that this is a 'fantasy' book, in the sense that I have used in this blog. There are certainly no wizards or spells. And in terms of its primary audience it really falls into the YA category and not children's. But I am including it for one simple reason. It is without doubt the most exciting book I have read for a long, long time - and I have read many.
Exciting is exactly the right word here too. In fact this book was exciting in two different ways. It was hugely exciting to have found a first book by a new writer of such exquisite ability and promise. It was also an amazingly visceral excitement actually to read it, especially its final third. I almost defy anyone to read from the start of the stag race (of which more shortly) to the end in less than one sitting. It is a breath-taking experience.
The book put me in mind of two others that I read and admired a good while ago, one even longer ago than the other. The first was Janni Howker's The Nature of the Beast (from 1985), the second David Almond's Secret Heart (from 2001). The resonances came from the fact that both those works deal with young characters in very grim and stressful circumstances who play out their traumas through engagement with a 'fabulous' creature that exists on the cusp between reality and fantasy. However I emphatically do not make these comparisons to the detrement of Bone Jack. It is every bit as thrilling and well-written as these others- and they are both outstanding books.
There is actually a third book too with which I feel Bone Jack has certain affinities and that is Alan Garner's The Owl Service. Here there are two particular resonances for me: the theme by which an ancient legend is played out over succeeding generations until reaching its expiation in the present, and the the almost extreme concentration of both story and language into the tautest of expressions. Now, if I say, this time, that I think Sara Crowe's book is not quite the equal of The Owl Service, then this must be taken in the context that I consider the latter one of the finest ever works of children's (and possibly any) literature in English. And The Owl Service was a book written well on in Garner's development. Bone Jack is a first book - and actually I think much better in many ways than Garner's first works, even though these were importantly ground-breaking in their time.
In drawing comparison with remarkable writing of the past my intention is purely to highlight the quality of Bone Jack. In no way do I impute its originality or integrity. It is very much it's own book, and wonderfully so. If it is in any sense fantasy, then it exists right on the edge of this description. More accurately perhaps fantasy exists right on the edge of this story - although it is, paradoxically, an essential and integral element of it. If anything this book is what I earlier called a 'dual world fantasy'. (See 'Waymarkers' posted May '14.) That is to say, it is largely sited in the real world, but with another world, that of myth and legend, ghosts and 'magic', lingering on its very peripherary and just occasionally intruding into greater awareness or even physicality to affect characters and their story.
Here the reality centres on a mock hunt that is essentially a cross-country race, but belongs to very long- standing tradition in the northern fell country where the book is vividly set. The 'magic' is one of the oldest possible and lies at the ancient heart of that same hunt, a blood sacrifice made to the land itself to restore lost fertility. The traumatic issues to be worked through involve a soldier father suffering from PTSD and the aftermath of the recent suicidal hanging of his childhood friend. The main actors are the sons of these two men, now playing the roles of 'stag' and 'hound' in the hunt. The context, a sun-parched, foot-and-mouth ravaged farmland denying a living.
On one level the story is a simple one, simply told, but it has countless layers and depths. All the wonderfully and sympathetically drawn main characters, the two boys, their fathers, the sister of one boy, even the mother, are involved in a web of relationships and intense feelings that cross the generations and prove to be intimately mixed with the legends and 'ghosts' surrounding the hunt. It is rich and powerful stuff.
But it is the telling of the story that is its greatest triumph. The language too is superficially simple, with predominantly short sentences and curt dialogue, but this hides that great skill and power of economy and aptness which is so powerful and engaging. This language comes most fully into its own in the final long section of the book, from the start of the actual hunt onwards. Here the writing truly comes alive and the whole sequence is the most wonderful, engaging and thrilling narrative reading experience. The language use, for example, for a whole section at the start of Chapter 34 is just the most marvellous and affecting prose, rhythmical and almost poetic. If anything is magical this is.
The ending of such a book could be a let down, but the author handles this well too. Her outcomes which say, essentially, 'Everything was still not all right - but it was better,' manage to strike the right note, achieving credibility and avoiding sentimentality whilst still leaving the reader will a satisfying element of feel-good resolution.
This book is a remarkable achievement. If its author continues to hone and develop her considerable skills, rather than just rushing further books out on the back of this one, then I am optimistic of real greatness to come.