The Bone Dragon

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The Bone Dragon boasts a rather impressive array of accreditations. It was named as a Book of the Year in 2013 for both the Financial Times and the Independent, as well as being shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and long listed for the Branford Boase Award. It was first published in 2013 and is the debut novel of Alexia Casale.

The novel is told from the perspective of Evie, a fourteen year old girl who has been adopted by a loving couple after years of terrible abuse at the hands of her maternal grandparents. At first, she is unable to open up to her new family but eventually plucks up the confidence to reveal to them the horrible extent of her injuries – she has never told anyone her ribs are broken and has been suffering in silence for years.

During her surgery, a piece of Evie’s rib is removed and the doctor gives it to her as a souvenir. Although her mother finds this morbid, her Uncle Ben helps her to carve the rib into a dragon as part of her therapy.

While Evie struggles to come to terms with her dark past by day, in her dreams the dragon comes to life and guides her on moonlit walks across the fens, allowing her to find peace in the night. At first this is therapeutic for her but gradually the dragon dreams begin to grow more sinister. Although cryptic, the dragon seems to be urging for her to take revenge on the people who have wronged her and begins to  fixate on the fact that it will soon be the time of their ‘dark moon’…

Before picking up this novel, I should probably warn you that The Bone Dragon is a surprisingly dark read. My impression from the beginning of the book was that it would be a tale of rebirth – a heart-warming story about an abused girl who found happiness with a family who loved her. This naturally is one aspect of the novel, but it is also a tale of justice and revenge. The Bone Dragon is a psychological thriller. It does not focus on the cause of Evie’s injuries, but rather the lasting effect that they have on her psyche.

Evie’s damage is realistically portrayed through the first person narrative. Although her abuse is now in the distant past, she is still traumatised by what happened. She gets frightened when people touch her unexpectedly and grows frustrated with her loved ones when she feels as though they are fretting about small problems. She feels as though her silence shows her strength of will and therefore struggles to see why others would make a fuss about dangers that are so small and insignificant in comparison.

Through Evie, the author presents a very realistic portrayal of a girl suffering from depression. Evie views herself to be an outsider, her experiences making her feel as though she has lost her innocence and been left forever ‘different’ from those who try to support her. She resents her mother (who is always referred to by her first name in the novel) as she blames her for remaining silent and allowing the abuse to continue. Although several characters in the novel try to help Evie understand the events from her mother’s perspective, Evie will have none of it. In her mind, Fiona was a pathetic coward who failed as a parent when she was most needed.

This bitterness fuels Evie in her nocturnal adventures. It is clear from the beginning that the dragon is only a product of her imagination, representing her unconscious need for closure. As her resentment builds throughout the story, the dragon gradually grows more powerful and threatening. Although hints as to how the story will end are scattered throughout the novel and will be easily picked up by the savvy reader, it is still somewhat chilling and leaves a dark stain on what would otherwise be an uplifting tale.

Although we see the story through Evie’s eyes and are therefore influenced by her outlook on life, the supporting cast of the novel are also all fully fleshed out as individuals. Every character has their own set of little quirks. Amy fiddles with her wedding ring when she’s nervous, Uncle Ben only smiles around people when he is truly happy and Lynne frets endlessly about her weight. These traits are never forced upon us by the author, they are instead gradually noticed by Evie as the story progresses. Evie is not the only character that develops as the novel progresses – they all do. In a stand-alone novel, this is especially impressive. Casale manages to contain more character development in 300 pages than some other authors manage in an entire series.

The story itself is gorgeously written. The most memorable sections of the novel are the dragon dreams which paint a hauntingly poetic image of the Cambridgeshire Fens at night. These sections are so richly described that I almost felt as though I was there with Evie – they were, in a word, simply breath-taking.

Unfortunately, the daytime sections of the novel do not shine with the same magic. The story can be incredibly slow burning in places, leaving long stretches where little seems to happen. Some of the scenes at Evie’s school seemed particularly unnecessary as they did little more than hamper the plot. In one scene in particular, we are treated to an entire GCSE English lesson on the topic of Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. The fact that Evie disliked Hamlet for his habit of openly expressing his problems rather than simply dealing with them was established earlier in the novel, so it seemed pointless to spend several pages of class discussion to hammer this image into the reader’s mind.

However, to be fair, most of the scenes in the story do serve an eventual point. A lot of the little details that seem pointless on the first read through are actually subtle hints as to how the story will end. In order to appreciate the intricate way in which Casale has constructed her plot, The Bone Dragon really needs to be read carefully, maybe even multiple times, in order to pick up on any of the tiny clues that you might have missed on the initial read.

In short, The Bone Dragon really is essential reading. Although it is slow moving in places, it rewards the reader’s perseverance with haunting imagery and incredibly well rounded characters. However, don’t read the novel if you are looking for a heart-warming tale. Beneath uplifting story of an abused girl finding a loving home is a dark tale of revenge that culminates in a final twist that will leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

The Bone Dragon can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: New Moon | Arkham Reviews
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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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