Sunday, May 07, 2006

Send My Cold Bones Home - Tristan Hughes

Send My Cold Bones Home by Tristan Hughes is essentially a gothic novel. It begins in death with the funeral of Johnny Ifor; there is claustrophobia and decay; several Miss Havisham-style mausolea; ghosts; grotesques; imprisonment; and sudden violent eruptions. But whilst he might employ some of the imagery and conventions of the traditional gothic novel, Hughes avoids the stale melodrama of the form. Instead he has produced a work that is subtle, sophisticated and memorable.

Jonathon Hall (the narrator) is a back-packer, a traveller who has never been able to set down roots. Bequeathed a cottage on Ynys Mon he develops a fascination for his neighbour Johnny Ifor, a recluse, who has barely strayed from the place of his birth. Opposites attract and Hall spends much time listening to Johnny's exotic family stories. For Johnny has travelled too, from Valparaiso to the Indian territories - but only inside his head.

Throughout this novel Hughes contrasts stasis and movement, as well as internal and external realities. Johnny and such characters as the taciturn Bub and crash victim Tammy have internalized their worlds. Hall and the always mobile farmer, Nut, represent energy and outward activity. That this movement is often portrayed as futile is telling, as most characters in this book are seeking escape, usually from themselves and their pasts.

The influence of trauma on identity is a strong here - the notion that an unpleasant event can indelibly fix a person and disable their facility to 'move on'. Both Jonathon Hall and Johnny Ifor are stuck in patterns of behaviour from which they cannot escape. Hall's compulsion to wander has been passed onto him by a rootless father, whilst Johnny's stasis has been imposed by a grieving mother. This fixing is echoed in the number of 'mausolea' that are scattered throughout the book: an abandoned quarry; mementoes sealed away in boxes; even a storeroom full of Indian skulls.

Structurally the book ebbs and flows between past and present, interweaving Johnny's colourful digressions along the way. It's a complex process but not for the reader as Hughes always keeps a tight grip on the narrative. The story itself is drawn forward by the gradual revelation of how Johnny Ifor has become a recluse; and a sexual sub-plot involving Hall and the traumatized crash victim Tammy.

The progression of the seasons lends a sense of steady continuity to the book, as well as providing an enjoyable descriptive backdrop. In fact Hughes' use of the natural world for metaphor is very adroit throughout. I particularly liked his fusing of natural and anatomical images reminding us that as well as the stamp of heredity and experience, the landscape exerts its own insidious influence upon character.

I started by saying that this is a gothic novel but Hughes' gothic owes more to William Faulkner than to Monk Lewis. It is the past haunting the present and a fascination for place that you'll really find in these pages. There is also perhaps something here of the author's own engagement with stasis and movement. Externally Hughes has journeyed from Atikokan, Canada to Ynys Mon, Wales - but it is from the fixed point of his desk, via the interior realm of imagination, that he has conjured this thoroughly engrossing novel.

Send My Cold Bones Home is published by Parthian Books and is available at Amazon.


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