Daily life in a small English town is utterly upended when the frozen, mutilated body of a prostitute is found in a nearby ravine. Thus opens BONE HOUSE, the debut novel by Betsy Tobin. A modern, topical premise taken from the lurid late news or trash tabloids, a reader might assume. Instead, the tale of Dora, the acknowledged and well-loved village slattern, is set in 1603, the last year in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
The narrator of this story is unnamed, or if she is ever given a name, it is quickly, without thought and never referred to again. Perhaps this has something to do with her build, being slight, or her temperament, which swings between aloof and dreamy. It probably also has to do with the way she is used by the author; a liminal character, the young woman moves between the many stratified worlds of the town without ever really belonging to any of them. As she travels, the reader follows, learning about life in this one pla ce in time, but also exploring timeless themes.
As evinced by both the title (bone house was a phrase for the human body) and the gruesome incident on the opening pages, this is a novel steeped in ideas about gender, sex, and sexuality. The narrator's mother is the town midwife and healer. Dora, due to her work as a prostitute, was many times in need of medical services, and thus became close friends with the mother and, in time, became a mother-goddess like figure to her daughter. From these two powerful females, the narrator learnt of the intimate and sensual world of women, a world brimming with the pleasure and pain of sexuality. In one haunting scene, as a small child, she witnesses her mother aiding a woman with a problematic birth --- the outcome of which distances her emotionally from her mother.
Class divisions in town are also touched upon. The narrator has a job that she loves: she is a maid in "The Great House," the manor on a hill that overlooks the town. Her master there is a kind, congenitally disfigured intellectual; he is also the owner of all the land in town and thus the landlord to everyone else. His mother is a wilted court beauty who longs to return to her social milieu and its world of balls and appearances. She is vain and a hypochondriac. Within the house, there is still another class distinction. Being a smart and dutiful girl, the narrator has risen to the rank of lady in waiting. She has her own room and certain small freedoms that she enjoys greatly, especially after years of sleeping in the same bed with her mother. This situation engenders not a little bitterness amongst the rest of the maids, cooks, and grooms who eat, sleep and work communally.
Add to the mix a handsome, mysterious, foreign artist. He is a portrait painter, newly arrived from the Continent, the same Low Country from which Dora herself fled years before. He has been commissioned to paint the master and mistress of "The Great House," and his arrival causes commotion throughout the household as well as in the town.
It is around this same time that the narrator decides to do her own investigation of Dora's death and she does so with help from both the painter and his patron as well as her childhood friend, who is now the wife of the local innkeeper. The narrator's investigations unearth secrets that tie three of the town's families together. BONE HOUSE also provides readers with historically researched details about witchcraft, superstitions, and the early days of medicine. All this within a rather straight murder mystery format.
I must say I was a disappointed with the rush at the end of the novel. After spending so much time getting to know these characters and their way of life, the denouement seemed too pat and a romantic coupling a bit unbelievable. But those are minor flaws in an otherwise promising debut. Shakespeare was a man of his times; the Elizabethans, unlike the Victorians, reveled in the base, enjoying stories full of lust and blood. They probably would have found this well crafted and thoughtful novel too tame.
Reviewed by Lillian Newley on January 21, 2011