Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Bone Dragon, by Alexia Casale

It takes Evie four years to find a way to tell her adoptive parents about her ribs; the pain, the grating; another part of her that remains broken by her past. They’re not an easy fix, but at least it’s something that can be fixed. And when she returns home from the hospital with a piece of rib in a pot, maybe she can use it to find a way toward fixing the other broken parts. She carves the rib into a tiny, sinuous, winding dragon, a talisman of strength and fire to hold onto; a light at the end of the tunnel. But when the dragon comes alive at night, where will he lead her?

The Bone Dragon is simultaneously strange and beautiful, a winding story that leaves as many questions unanswered as answered. What exactly happened to Evie before she met her parents? Are the dragon dreams real, or just what Evie tells herself they are – dreams? Does Evie really believe they are only dreams, or is this simply another way of coming to terms with both her past and her current actions? Alexia Casale weaves together a series of perfectly everyday storylines into something surreal and with an ambiguous ending that left me feeling extremely uncomfortable, itchy in my own skin for what it might mean for Evie, who she is and who she might become as a result of it.

Aside from her dragon dreams, today Evie is leading a relatively normal life. She has good friends, a family who loves her deeply, an insightful teacher. But there are other threads here too: her adoptive family suffered terrible loss in the past, her friends don’t know the truth of her past, a bully at school takes up a large part of Evie’s thoughts. Sometimes the past comes rushing in, taking over the present and it’s hard to remember what is and isn’t real, what’s now and what was then – yet there are gaps, blank spaces, questions over how she got from A to B, what happened between A and C. These glimpses of what must surely be some form of PTSD are emotionally charged and heart-rending, and I fear for Evie and how much she is suppressing.

And then Evie starts to overhear hushed conversations between her father, Paul, and uncle, Ben. What are they up to? Is it what she hopes? She yearns for revenge for what was done to her, but does taking revenge change who you are and make you more like the person you hate? This is the last thing she wants for Paul and Ben, yet when the truth of their secretive activity is revealed the disappointment is instinctual. What if she was to take revenge herself? She’s already been changed, but is revenge the same as healing?

I never studied Hamlet in school, but Evie is and it’s a play that she reacts strongly to. Looking up the themes for Hamlet, revenge is foremost, much like it is in Evie’s mind, but there’s also “appearance and reality”, “deception”, “madness”, “family”, and “moral corruption”, all of which feel pertinent to Evie’s story. Casale’s blending of each The Bone Dragon demonstrates her exceptional writing ability and, as uncomfortable as I may have been left feeling by the end, it cannot be denied that I was firmly hooked into the story. The surreality and darkness of The Bone Dragon may be acutely uncomfortable, but it is extremely well done.

Other reviews I’ve read for The Bone Dragon are all massively praiseworthy, calling it wonderful, captivating, magical, hypnotic. And it is certainly all of these things, but also extremely unsettling – and this is the predominant feeling I’ve been left with. Darkness overlays everything else within, no matter how beautifully constructed it might be. Doubtless this is the author’s intention and perhaps this makes it the most real look at the mind of an abused person – the pain may be buried as deep as Evie can get it, yet it still resonates through every pore of her body and crevice of her mind, changed forever.

Tread lightly, readers.

(Linda Buckley-Archer gives much more precise input in The Guardian:

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