Review: Boneland by Alan Garner

Like many others I read Boneland as a much awaited sequel to Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. I’d already read reports that the novel would be Garner in ‘grown-up’ mode and I eagerly anticipated a conclusion to the story.

I read the novel in two sittings, roughly half and half. After reading the first half I was in two minds, I didn’t warm to Meg’s dialogue and wondered where Garner was going with the parallel narratives.

However, having paused for thought I started to see the novel as in a different light. Familiarity drew me in and I began to recognize the backdrop from the previous books. As a grown-up I’ve often wondered what the magic of childhood turns into with maturity of mind, and I think that Garner has attempted to capture that place in the adult abstract mind between myth/magic and rational thought.

Psychotherapy investigates childhood fears translated into adult terms and I think Garner is brave to use this as the vehicle for discovery and, for me as a psychologist, this was the weakest aspect of the novel. Yet I have to question how he would have done it otherwise.

There has been some debate over Meg’s identity and whether she is, in fact, the Morrigan. To me, Meg represents the reason that comes with maturity before (or to prevent) aged bitterness sets in. I expect that the fact that the Morrigan was represented as a witch-like character in the children’s books readily translates, but, like all identities, Meg’s may be transient and certainly in Bonelands she is the safety vessel for Colin’s psyche, ever reminding him that he has to find whatever he is looking for himself, and that the inner self can never be second guessed. 

I love the triple goddess references and its link to ‘growing up’. Some of the references are fairly obvious and some of them hidden deep in the trilogy, but on my reading we have a lasting impression of Susan, just as Colin had, even as an adult. Outside Garner’s trilogy, Morrigan is a mythological goddess figure, often depicted as three figures in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. Her ability to shape-shift and to appear as an animal fits with Garner’s character, who’s name has it’s uncertain origins in either terror or greatness. 

Lined up with Colin’s quest for understanding, I do feel the novel reached a conclusion; not the simple and satisfying conclusion reached children’s literature, but a more complex conclusion that life’s unanswered questions give us if we dig deep. But that’s just me. As other reviewers have pointed out, different people will get different things from this book depending on their own perspective and understanding. This is the strength of the book. If your own psyche is drenched with myth and legend and you are conversant with the grown-up experiences of mental illness, obsession, and deep concern for the future of the planet, much of this novel will resonate. It does work on the level of ‘just a story’ but some of the mythological concepts are complicated and need patience. If you are looking for a children’s story or and obvious conclusion you will be disappointed. 

For me, a wonderful book that excited me, made me think deeply and helped me to remember not only my childhood, but also things that are precious to me.