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Monday, August 3, 2015

The Prayer of the Bone by Paul Bryers

Bloomsbury, 256 pages, out of print (c2000)

“The Prayer of the Bone” is an atmospheric, Gothic novel set in Maine, written by a Brit. (John Connally has a series set in Maine. What is it about Brits and Maine?)

Maddie left the UK with her ten-year-old daughter to move to Maine. She got a job working on Dr. Wendicott’s archaeological dig, looking for the remains of an English settlement. Secondarily, the dig crew is trying to determine what happened to the Souriquois (Micmac) indigenous people. On the verge of a significant discovery, Maddie’s body is found near the cliffs of the coastal excavation site. She appears to have been mauled by a bear.

Calhoun is the detective assigned to the backwater where the death occurred. When Maddie’s sister, Jessica, flies in from England, he is immediately attracted to her (and Dr. Wendicott). (Pickings are slim, apparently.) It’s a story about sex. It’s story about myths. It’s a story about dysfunctional families. (Lots of dysfunctional families.) It’s a history lesson.

Mostly there is a lot of grey, snowy, rainy, muddy bleakness. Paul Bryers paints the gloom well. Here is a passage about the “cold, bleak border country between England and Scotland”:

“A land of sheep. Ugly rain-sodden sheep with shaggy grey coats that looked like bits of wall had broken off and been scattered across the hillside; and black crows that nested in the twisted beech trees of the churchyards and flew down to eat the eyes from new-born lambs…”

Even the child, Freya, comes in for her share of foreboding: “Jessica often used the word [elfin] to describe Freya to her friends in Rome, meaning ‘scamp-like, cute’, not thinking then of its more chthonic connotations, of furtiveness, secrecy, even slyness, of the dark creepiness of the forest. But Freya was half Celt, half native American; it had to be in the genes.”

Bryers holds the Gothic tone pretty well, except for a rhythmic change-up when dealing with Calhoun’s soaring testosterone. Bryers also presents a fascinating history lesson of the European insolence and expansionism in Maine, even though a lot of it is fictional.

For most of the book, Bryers keeps up the suspense of whether Maddie has been murdered. (Or maybe it's just tough to get an analysis done during a cold Maine winter in the middle of nowhere.) There's a rousing discussion of bear cults, people acting like animals, spirit animals, and weirdness.

Although “The Prayer of the Bone” is out of print, it is easy to find a used copy. It’s worth the effort.

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