Louise Welsh: Naming the Bones (2010)

Knee-deep in the mud of an ancient burial ground, a winter storm raging around him, and at least one person intent on his death: how did Murray Watson end up here? His quiet life in university libraries researching the lives of writers seems a world away, and yet it is because of the mysterious writer, Archie Lunan, dead for thirty years, that Murray now finds himself scrabbling in the dirt on the remote island of Lismore. Loaded with Welsh’s trademark wit, insight and gothic charisma, this adventure novel weaves the lives of Murray and Archie together in a tale of literature, obsession and dark magic.

I read a few intriguing reviews of Louise Welsh’s books and Naming the Bones was the one that tempted me the most. Set in Glasgow, Edinburgh and on the Island of Lismore, off the West Coast of Scotland, this is a very atmospherical read. The first 150 pages or so, it did remind me a lot of Kate Atkinson but farther into the novel, this changed considerably. And that is a bit sad. The novel had the potential to be great but the denouement wasn’t to my liking and so I would say, yes, it is a very good novel but not a great one.

Murray Watson, a professor of English literature at the University of Glasgow has a passion that makes him ask for a sabbatical. Since he was a very young guy, he loved the poems of Archie Lunan. Lunan has only had one slim collection published before he died an untimely and mysterious death. Living on the Island of Lismore for a certain time, together with Christie, his girl friend, he took a boat in stormy weather and never returned.

Murray wants to write his biography, do extensive research on the poet, interview people who knew him and secretly wishes to find a few undiscovered poems. Fergus Baine, the head of the department and husband of Murray’s lover Rachel, disadvises this approach. He tells him to concentrate on the poems, not the man.

It is obvious that Naming the Bones is exploring these two approaches to literature; the biographical one and the one leaving out everything related to the life of the author.

Murray is an interesting character. We meet him at a junction in his life. He has just been dumped by Rachel and realizes that Fergus may have known all along that he had an affair with her and that he may not have been the only one whith whom she had affairs. Fergus and Rachel seem to have a very unhealthy relationship.

Murray’s father died of Alzheimer’s and Jack, his brother, who is an artist, made an installation, showing their demented father on film which infuriates Murray.

Murray is a good looking, very attractive man and his charms are the reason why all through the novel women feel attracted to him.

What reads for the first 100 and so pages like a character study and an adventure story circling around the core theme of researching a deceased poet, starts to get dismal once it seems obvious that some of the people in Murray’s life knew Archie and that there may be secrets tied to Archie’s death that are far more disturbing than the possibility that Archie committed suicide.

When the reasearch in Edinburgh and Glasgow is finished, Murray leaves for the Island of Lismore where Christie lives. She doesn’t want to give him an interview or any other information, still Murray wants to see the place where Archie lived and died.

As beautiful as the island may be, it is a lonely and desolate place. Murray’s mood seems to get darker and darker, along with the developments in the novel. It also seems as if other people looking into Archie’s life had met with an untimely death and the further we read into the novel the more uncanny it gets.

I saw the term “gothic” mentioned a few times along with this book and couldn’t understand the use at first. I love gothic books but I do not like the blend of gothic and crime/thriller because that invariably means that  a “satanistic cult” or some such thing serves as part of the background. It’s not as bad as that here but the elements are present. Lucky the outcome isn’t tied to anything supernatural or occult. What we find out at the end just shows some young people’s depravity.

As said in the beginning, this is a very atmospherical novel. I have been to Scotland and know Glasgow and Edinburgh as well as some of the islands off the West Coast and I must say they are very well rendered. It is also an extremely well written novel, the numerous main and secondary characters are without any exception interesting and complex. There is more than one theme explored in this book which gives it additional depth. Welsh tackles topics like old age, research, poetry, alternative life styles, modern relationships, death and suicide with intelligence and a great deal of insight.

All this together makes Naming the Bones a very entertaining read on an autumn or winter afternoon when the world outside is as rainy, stormy and dark as the world in the novel. If you like a gothic atmosphere, you will enjoy this a great deal.

Here’s the island’s website should you plan a trip to Scotland: Island of Lismore.

11 thoughts on “Louise Welsh: Naming the Bones (2010)

  1. Thanks for this Caroline. Now I think I’ll try one of the other titles first–although it does sound worth reading, I’m not in a huge rush because of the reservations you have with it. But I’m sure I’ll read it at some point.

    • You’re welcome. I think that you would probably even like it more than I did because you read about my reservations. There definitely is a Kate Atkinson element there but when I started it I didn’t know how it would develop and what other elements would be added so I was a bit disappointed. And it’s not exactly a spring time book. All in all it still makes me want to read another one and I would recommend her.

  2. I have this book and several others by Welsh, but I’ve not yet read her. I like the sounds of this one though it is a little strange with a combination of crime and gothic elements. Somehow it seems cliched to use satanistic cults in crime novels, or maybe I’ve not come across an author who has really pulled it off (or maybe I’ve seen too many crime dramas on TV that use it?). The setting sounds wonderful though. Maybe I’ll save this one for fall and start with one of her other books first! I do love that cover, too!

    • I think you would like it if you read it in the autumn season. It would be perfect for the next R.I.P. The satanistic part isn’t really named as such, it’s just some occult thing and it’s not really very present, I just thought she could have done completely without it and would have had an outstanding book. The gothic parts come mostly from the atmosphere and part of the setting, an ancient burial ground. I agree, it’s a great cover.

  3. I’ve seen several good reviews of this (I think Teresa at Shelf Love liked it a lot) and I’m tempted to read something by the author. I do like crime novels on the whole, so I might like the ending better. But it’s always good to be reminded that genre fiction is hard to write well, too.

    • Considering what books are out there in the genre, this is still the upper range. I had a problem with one character and his tendencies. That someone would keep up that behaviour over such a long period seemed a bit far-fetched.

  4. I’m not going to rush and buy this one. Atmospherical novel, gothic elements, satanic stuff, that’s out of my path.
    But I’ve heard of the writer and might look for another of her books. I hope I’ll remember not to choose this one.
    (now we’re back to the “do-not-buy-it list”)

    • If you don’t go for atmospherical and gothic, you might not like it but tha satanic stuff is really toned done. I was overreacting a bit. She is worth reading.

  5. I really loved the setting of the novel. While I like stories with atmospherical and gothic elements I’m finding it a bit difficult to dig into crime stories as yet. I never understood how people are making such an effort to read WW I novels though.

    • I don’t think that the blend does always work. It was OK here and I loved the atmosphere and Gothic elemenst I just didn’t like the implication of dark magic. Stries/Novels about war are not for everybody, I agree. I’m not only interested in WWI, I’m interested in any war and how it shapes/shaped our lives.

  6. Pingback: Louise Welsh: Tamburlaine Must Die (2004) « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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