A review of Gnarled Bones by Tam May

Reviewed by Jack Messenger

Gnarled Bones
by Tam May
Dreambook Press
ISBN 9780998197906 (print)
ISBN 9780998197913 (ebook)

‘The past does not exist, so it cannot hurt me.’ How many desperate people, I wonder, have muttered some such mantra under their breaths in the hope they can stop brooding about things dead and buried? The trouble is, of course, very few things are dead and buried. Each of us lives with the consequences of the past; its deeds are all around us. And if we insulate ourselves from the pain it can cause, we can also miss out on its pleasures and joys.

The stories in Gnarled Bones are much concerned about the past’s persistence through time, whether through learned and internalized ways of seeing oneself and the world, as in the opening story, ‘Mother of Mischief’, or the power of a single event to derail a life, as in ‘Broken Bows’, or – implicitly and explicitly throughout – a semi-malevolent maternal love that seeks to control and cripple a child’s natural urge to explore and engage with the world.

On reading these stories, one is reminded of the paintings of Marc Chagall: a hermetic world of imagery, difficult to interpret, informed by rich folk traditions and personal experience. In Gnarled Bones, women are the principal (but by no means sole) targets of the past’s slings and arrows. In this regard, the opening story, ‘Mother of Mischief’, is the most interesting in the collection, casting retrospective light on its own ambiguous title and showing us how we can, after all, be the authors of our own entrapment.

‘There is no trap so deadly’, writes Raymond Chandler, ‘as the trap you set for yourself.’ Some of the characters in Gnarled Bones learn this for themselves. Helena, for example, in ‘A First Saturday Outing’, has a sudden moment of revelation when, at long last, she leaves her apartment (her prison, her refuge) for the very first time and visits an exhibition of sculptures at a local museum. The sculptures are of women, situated significantly in a context of disciplined learning. It is the postures of these female figures – their physical contortions, their cumulative weight – that bring Helena to knowledge of herself.

Ironically, however, the past has too tight a grip on Gnarled Bones itself: the stories have more or less severed their temporal moorings, and are difficult to situate in any kind of modern world, whose intrusions are few and far between. This lack of engagement with the present – stylistically, culturally and psychologically – has odd consequences, among which is the impression that one is reading tales written no later than the 1950s, say, and set in an even earlier era. I kept picturing the women in long dresses and prim bonnets, the men draped in ulsters and carrying canes.

In addition, there are curious word choices whose confusing implications trip up the reader: ‘worrisome eye’ and ‘loving conscience’, for example, in ‘Mother of Mischief’, left me puzzling as to whether or not they conveyed the author’s intended meaning. Other instances appear to me to be just plain wrong: ‘She [settled] in the largest and most oblivious city she could find’, where ‘oblivious’ should surely be ‘anonymous’ or ‘impersonal’, a city where she could lose herself. And ‘devout’ should surely be ‘devoid’ in the clause ‘thrust out into the world devout of happiness and sanity.’

Metaphors and images often seem to have been chosen for evocativeness rather than accuracy (e.g. ‘bone hollow in his cheeks’, ‘his eyes glossy’). And what is one to make of the following: ‘The living room looked like a canopy of stars without the furniture and lamps’; ‘His breathing became heavy and blank’; ‘Her thin hands warmed a spot of her bones’? Such fancies are often considered a poet’s prerogative, but poets, too, strive for precision, no matter how startling and original the image, and no self-respecting poet would have let these slip past his or her creative intelligence. One can work out what is meant by ‘His face blushed like a boy’ and ‘his face crawling with fear’, but it is irritating that it is not said properly and clearly in the first place. And the power of ‘Playing a different tune is like Lazarus rising from the ashes’ is immediately diffused as soon as one recalls that Lazarus was not cremated.

As these few examples indicate, the book would benefit enormously from elementary copyediting and proofreading to eradicate basic  errors and infelicities, including mistakes in layout, missing words, clichés, wrong use of uppercase, clumsy repetition, confusingly mixed tenses, under-punctuation, and the dreary use of typewriter quotes.

These problems are pervasive and far too abundant to be discussed at length. Together, they are cacophonous, drowning out Tam May’s individual voice. That is a great shame because there are good things to savor, such as darkness ‘folding over him like the lid of a coffin’ (‘Broken Bows’), or these sentences from the titular story: ‘I understand now about Priscilla’s hands. Grief makes gnarly bones. They are mine now.’

The past clutches at us all.

About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a UK-based writer and reviewer of literary fiction, who also blogs about writing, film and anything else that takes his fancy. He copyedit Interventions, the International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, and is currently a submissions reader for Red Line, an online literary journal. His novel, The Long Voyage Home, is doing the rounds of agents and publishers. He can be found at his blog http://jackmessenger.co.uk/, which can also take readers to all the usual social media places where he is keen to be followed and liked.