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Posted on 4 Jun 2024 in Fiction | 0 comments

NATALIE BAYLEY Bone Rites. Reviewed by Sandra Nichols

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The protagonist of Natalie Bayley’s novel embarks on an unusual and increasingly dangerous quest to honour the brother she lost in childhood.

They are hanging me tomorrow … Each second is an eternity. I cannot sleep, I cannot eat. I lie wretched on the bed while Freddie paces up and down the cell.

Natalie Bayley’s Bone Rites is an historical novel and psychological thriller that draws you in from the very beginning. It encompasses ancient magic, ghostly imaginings, lesbianism and the emotional and physical horrors of war and its aftermath. Ultimately it deals with a series of revenge murders undertaken by the main character, Kathryn Darkling, who ends up  in London’s Holloway Prison. The book begins in 1925 with Kathryn awaiting her execution, but then it’s back to 1905: ‘I collected the first bone when I was twelve … Such a tiny little bone, more like a tooth. I only kept it to keep him safe.’

Bone Rites was the winner of the 2022 Virginia Prize for Fiction and is set in the early twentieth century, the period when Virginia Woolf was writing.  Kathryn Darkling lives a privileged life with her self-obsessed mother and often absent father.  She dotes on her little brother Freddie and longs to protect him, so when he loses the tip of his little finger in an accident, she cleans and saves the bone. Finding a book about bone rites in her father’s library, she carefully follows the instructions for ‘A Bone Rite to Protect thy beloved from Harm’ and hangs the finger bone around her neck. She believes this will keep Freddie safe but she loses the bone necklace and Freddie dies on the Western Front in World War I.

Kathryn knows about bones and amputations as she trains as a doctor prior to the war, and the author displays a knowledge of chemistry, the human body and medical procedures. As a female, Kathryn’s medical training is not recognised as adequate for doctor status, so she is recruited for war service as a nurse. During her time in a hospital for the wounded, she witnesses terrible suffering and disfigurement:

My role is very simple. I swab, I clean, I mop, I soothe. I roll still-warm bodies into sheets and spirit them away so that the other patients will not witness the trauma of death. This is pointless, of course, many of them have already seen the faces of their friends blown away.

There are many descriptions of the horrors suffered by the soldiers she treats, many calling for their mothers. Kathryn’s best friend’s husband, Tom Drummond, arrives at the hospital badly wounded.  Kathryn saves Tom’s leg bone after an amputation and he lives, thus confirming for her the power of bone rites.

It all comes back to me and I’m filled with a sense of purpose. Tom’s lateral cuneiform is much easier to work with than Freddie’s tiny distal phalange. It’s the size and shape of a small pebble and once it is ready it sits neatly in my pocket.

The story then takes a darker turn, with Kathryn undertaking numerous more complicated amputations of bones, all from dead bodies. Initially, she is opportunistic in her harvesting, using her position as a war-time nurse to salvage bones from bodies on their way to the furnace. Later, however, her actions are more determined. Kathryn’s victims are chosen by Freddie, who haunts her waking hours, for their roles in prolonging the war and/or benefiting from it in some way, usually politically or economically.

Eventually the bones she keeps are added together to make an almost complete skeleton. Still haunted by Freddie, who wants her to complete the skeleton by sourcing a skull, Katheryn is caught and incarcerated at Holloway, where she is counselled by a priest who seeks her repentance. It is through her conversations with the priest that the narrative of her life unfolds. She wants something from him – something that will enable her to appease her ghostly brother.

The book is enjoyable for its ingenuity, its humour in places (especially in the conversations between the priest and Kathryn in Holloway) and its compelling descriptions of the horrors of war and the impact it had on the families of the deceased. We are left to wonder whether Freddie is indeed a presence or a figment of Kathryn’s imagination as she deals with his loss.

The book is certainly a page-turner; you’re kept guessing who the next victim will be, how Kathryn will manage to procure the bones she needs to complete the skeleton, and just what she has in mind for the priest. It left me thinking how sometimes we are compelled to undertake tasks we don’t feel comfortable with to please others. Freddie seems to rule her life even though he becomes crueller and more demanding as the novel progresses. Whatever Kathryn does is never enough for him. The conclusion is surprising and very satisfying at the same time, as the author successfully ties up the threads she has laid down.

This book will appeal for the various questions it raises. The lack of evil intent in Kathryn’s killings is something to ponder. If love for another guides us to commit a crime, is it ever justified? Can we ever recover from the untimely death of a loved one?

Natalie Bayley Bone Rites Aurora Metro 2023 PB 320pp $21.99

Sandra Nichols is a freelance editor and leads the Clunes Writers’ Group (Victoria), which launched its second anthology, Chequerboard, at the Clunes Booktown Festival in  March 2024. An avid reader, she loves page-turners that keep you guessing while posing interesting moral conundrums.

You can buy Bone Rites from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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