Like David Chariandry’s Brother, The Bone Mother is preoccupied with the power of storytelling, with the particular significance of telling one’s own story.
The stories in David Demchuk’s book are told simply, in a fable-like tone, with clarity and attention to detail.
They are linked, but not in a linear manner, not in any way which can tidily be explained. But they feel all-of-a-piece. Like echoes in a cavern system so extensive that beginnings are endings too, depending which direction you are facing.
“I’m telling this story in circles, I know. This is all I can do anymore. The words are twisting, tangling on my tongue. Or they would, if I still had a tongue.”
These tales are dark tales and some of them are bloody, too. Sometimes they begin so simply that you think you cannot possibly care to read on. Sometimes it even feels as though you just read the same story.
“I felt another shudder of nausea. This story was oddly familiar, but something about it was inside-out, or wrong-way-round. Where had I heard it? Who would have told me?”
But, then, you can’t help but read on. You do want to know what happened.
Such simple statements. Like, “I was the first to be killed when they came onto the factory floor.” Or, “I do not know why I killed her.” Such evocative explanations.
Each story revolves around a different character, whose name titles a segment and whose image heralds the beginning of their tale.
The photographs are pulled from the Costica Acsinte Archive, from the Romanian war photographer’s body of work.
These images are frequently contrasting with the content of the stories. The photographs often look ordinary. The sort that one finds in a flea market, in an old biscuit tin, with a flat price on a file card taped to the rim.
Sometimes there is a quirk about them, a strange highlight to the skin or a slight blur. Sometimes there is stark damage, a dark spot, a ghostly black smear.
Their stark colouring and the sombre expressions on the subjects’ faces allow them to complement the stories perfectly. In another context, one might imagine other stories for them; here, the themes pull from folklore and fairy tales, horror and wonder tales.
One recurring theme is the idea of rebirth and sustained life, which is almost the same thing, depending on the circumstances.
“Yet among those few there is a child, one who will succeed me. She feels the gnawing in her belly and it draws her to my hiding place. For a time, we will dine together. I will tell her my stories, and teach her what she needs to know. Through her, our kind will live anew. I will not be the last.”
And, always, the focus on the importance of stories. Along with all the other things that are passed along like an inheritance, stories too.
“In this way the sisters live on as the flowers live on, and through the story we tell.”
The Bone Mother is not all sisters and flowers. But kin and growths aplenty.
The Bone Mother‘s superpower is its love of story. Occasionally, elements of genre have crept into other Giller-nominated titles: westerns (Clifford Jackman’s The Winter Family in 2015 and Patrick de Witt’s The Sisters Brothers in 2011), mysteries ( Steven Price’s By Gaslight in 2016 and Daniel Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid in 2013), historical fiction (Robert Hough’s Dr. Brinkley’s Tower in 2012 and Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda in 2013). This year’s jury was not afraid to longlist a book which relies heavily on horror tropes, although they chose to advance other works to the shortlist.