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Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh

I had a chance to receive a review copy of the First American paperback edition of Louise Welsh’s “Naming the Bones” and read it in the course of one of the coldest and snowiest weeks on record in Iowa. The book has been available in the U.K. for several months, but is just newly published in paperback form in the U.S.

The protagonist who appears in every chapter of the book is Dr. Murray Watson, a professor of English literature at Glasgow University. It is this somewhat flawed character we get to know intimately as he researches the fate of a minor Scottish poet from the 1960s and 70s, Archie Lunan. Watson plans to write a biography of Lunan and is having an unusually difficult time finding enough data to justify a biography. As he pieces together the thin evidence Watson discovers there is quite a bit more than an accidental drowning behind the 30 year old mystery of Archie Lunan’s death.

In order to understand what made Lunan tick, Watson must uncover the details of the relationship between Lunan and his university pals, Christie Graves, Fergus Baine and Bobby Robb. Christie was Lunan’s wife, an academic and novelist who retired permanently to the Island of Lismore in northwestern Scotland after Lunan’s death. Fergus Baine became the dean of the English literature department at Glasgow University, and Watson’s boss. Bobby Robb was a believer in the dark arts and a heavy drug user who had a mysterious and fatal pull on the lives of Lunan and Graves.

At least the first half of the book is devoted to setting in place little clues to what happened to Lunan and his companions and getting us familiar with Watson and his associates in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The second half is a much more dramatic and fast-paced unwinding of the tale set on the Island of Lismore. Watson goes to visit Christie Graves on the island and while he is waiting for the right opportunity to approach her he picks up more pieces of the puzzle by talking with the reserved, laconic islanders. He also places calls back to the mainland to interview certain key characters.

Intertwined with the complex tale from 30 years ago is Watson’s own story. He drinks too much. He is having an affair with Rachel, his boss’ wife. He can’t seem to figure out a focus to his research project on Lunan, and it becomes increasingly clear why Fergus Baine is trying to steer him away from researching Lunan’s life story. Watson is the kind of young academic who doesn’t seem to be going anywhere with his career, and without any remarkable qualities. Because the first half of the book concentrates so heavily on Murray, a rather unlikely and unremarkable hero, I came close to putting the book away before the more rewarding parts.

Murray’s most admirable quality is his persistence, and in the end this is what leads to some shocking discoveries about Lunan and his friends, his lover, Rachel, and some previously unknown works of Lunan. Murray puts all these pieces together in the second half of the book.

I persisted and read through to the end and enjoyed that second half quite a lot. Descriptions of Lismore and its inhabitants are haunting and chilling. The reader almost feels as if he or she is walking along with Murray as he gets soaked to the bone and nearly gets sucked down into the mud pits on the island.

This British literary mystery leaves some moral loose ends that could be endlessly debated, such as when one has a moral obligation to tell the truth to the police and others; one’s moral obligation when someone asks for help to commit suicide; exposing rape, child neglect and murder; the problems of excessive drinking and drug use in academia; and several other equally provocative topics. It is for the introduction of these deeper issues that I particularly appreciated reading “Naming the Bones.”

Liz Nichols

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