The Bone Mother is the first novel I’m reading for the project I’m currently working on: reading the nominees for the Shirley Jackson Award. The Bone Mother has already hit a very good spot with me and I enjoyed it immensely. I think in many ways it’s like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for adults, and has a resemblance to Lore. As I mentioned before I’m from Romania, but I have been educated and raised in Canada. This book is written by Canadian author David Demchuk and it draws its inspiration from photographs made by Romanian photographer Costică Acsinte between 1935-1945, and Eastern European folklore, so in many ways it felt very familiar and close to home. This novel was also long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is very impressive as it is his debut novel.
This ‘novel’ isn’t quite a novel in the traditional sense. It is a series of stories, each prefaced by a black and white photograph from Acsinte’s collection, with a new name in the title. The names are both Romanian and Ukrainian/Russian. The tales focus on three villages on the border of Ukraine and Romania, neighbouring “The Thimble Factory.” Images of thimbles are present throughout the book, and we quickly learn that those who inhabit these villages must work five years at the thimble factory. There are narratives surrounding those working in the thimble factory which are more snippets of daily life, interspersed with fables and folkloric anecdotes featuring the supernatural like Strigoi (Romanian myth, troubled spirits of the dead rising from the grave, sometimes similar to vampire folklore) and Rusalkas (Russian myth, water spirit). At the center of it all is the fear of the Night Police who take people in the dead of night, and the most frightening figure at the center of the forest, not belonging to any village: the Bone Mother—she cooks and eats people who fail the tasks she gives them.
There are some phenomenal features to this work. The first is its juxtaposition of ‘regular’ folk next to these ‘supernatural’ beings as co-existing in the same spaces, while narrating it in a simplified, casual tone. The Bone Mother is never trying to scare you, but presents some narratives side by side of a history that may or may not have been. The way Demchuk also incorporates queer narratives gives the reader the impression that he is trying to look at various angles on the story of marginalized groups contrasting historical superstitions with contemporary oppression. There is also the juxtaposition of post-industrialism influence: the thimble factory, existing as a machine in the garden of folklore. The Bone Mother reminded me very much of a branch of literary theory contrasting naturalism with technology in literature. A work that comes to mind is the academic book by Leo Marx called The Machine in the Garden which explores the ways North America started out with such promise on untouched land with possibility, yet entered it with full industrial, assembly-line force, and how this is reflected in literature when the pastoral ideal clashes with technological advance. The way Demchuk presents these ideas in fiction is subtle but ever-present. Overall The Bone Mother very well written and had an innovative take on Eastern European folklore.
My only “problem” with this novel is that it’s not a novel. I thought the stories would combine as one, or that we would be introduced to some characters and then it would merge in novel-form. It maintained its short anecdote format, separated by images, that it was a little frustrating at times not knowing if it will merge or not. The short story format worked for what it is, however I’m wondering how it will rank against the other four nominees, and if this format would hold it back. What helped me a lot with this was getting the audiobook from Audible and following along in the text because they had different voice actors for each character and it brought them to life as diverse voices, with heavy Eastern European accents. Considering this is also a debut work, I think we can look forward to more from Demchuk and the book has done quite well so far making it on the list of two literary prizes already. This was a strong start!