REVIEW: Near the Bone by Christina Henry

This is a book about trauma that does not flinch from its own subject matter.

A few days ago, I decided to dip into my TBR pile in search of a comic. The book I found was a recent reprint of Ozamu Tezuka’s 1976 manga series MW. The story opens with a criminal fleeing the police with a hostage. After evading the police, the criminal takes the hostage to a sea cave where the hostage presents him with a suitcase full of money. The criminal calmly checks the money while his hostage whimpers and cries out for the return of his beloved son. Having assured himself that the money is all there and real, the criminal pulls a tarp off the backseat of a boat, revealing the bullet-riddled corpse of the hostage’s son. The kidnapper then pistol-whips the hostage, throws him overboard, and runs him over with the boat, leaving nothing but a slick of blood on the surface of the water. The next thing we know, the kidnapper is in a confessional booth asking the priest to hide him. When the priest refuses, the kidnapper sneers that the police already have them surrounded at which point he removes his beard and sunglasses to reveal a beautiful feminine face, the kidnapper then dresses as a nun and makes his escape. Later on, the priest turns up at the kidnapper’s home and tries to end his relationship only for the kidnapper to strip naked and invite the priest to have sex. When the priest refuses, the kidnapper expresses surprise as the priest never seemed reluctant to fuck when the kidnapper was a small child!

At this point, I shut the book because where can the story possibly go from there? With this much crazy-pants crammed into an opening chapter, how can the rest of the story hope to stand up? I had a very similar reaction to the opening chapters of Christina Henry’s Near the Bone as this book does not so much start as explode out of the gate.

The story opens on a snow-covered mountain. A woman named Maddie is checking traps set by her husband when she comes across the body of a fox beside a set of tracks too large to be those of a bear. What kind of animal would leave tracks so large? What kind of animal would kill but not even try to eat their prey? These questions scare Maddie but not nearly as much as the need to return home to inform her husband of the disturbance. Maddie is young and remembers nothing of her life before encountering her husband. In truth, she doesn’t even remember getting married. All that she remembers are the brutal beatings that her husband visits upon her for every slight real or imagined. This is a story about Maddie and her need to survive not one but two monsters.

Viewed as a thriller, Near the Bone suffers for that explosive start. Having introduced not only a supernatural monster but also a violently abusive husband in the opening chapters, Henry cannot help but struggle with pacing. As one might expect from a writer as experienced and successful, Henry understands the need for light and shade and so manages pace by shifting between moments of tension and moments of character-driven decompression in which Maddie either thinks about the horrors visited upon her, or about the long-buried memories of life before she was abducted. For example, there’s a point at which the couple try to track the monster back to its lair only for them to run into what appears to be a hiker. Henry manages the tension in the scene beautifully as Maddie is torn between wanting the man to help her escape and wanting the man to leave lest her husband decide to kill him. As the scene draws to a close, the man suggests that he might know Maddie but he calls her Samantha, at which point Maddie remembers a time in which she did bear that name.

While this rhythm of build-and-release will be familiar to anyone who has either watched a horror film or read a decent thriller, it is interesting to note that Henry genuinely struggles to pull it off. This is partly down to some of the tense situations being less tense and less scary than others, and partly down to the fact that some of the decompression scenes go on for quite a long time. For example, there is a moment when Maddie is on the run from two different monsters and decides to head back to the cabin she shared with her husband. While Henry makes it pretty clear that both the creature and the husband know that Maddie is in the cabin, Maddie spends her time in the cabin eating cheese sarnies and having a restful sleep while the things hunting her maintain a respectful distance. Nor is this interlude particularly short, it goes on for pages and pages shedding what momentum the plot might have had with surprisingly little to show for it. These types of pacing issues are also evident towards the end of the book when the climax is dealt with in a couple of pages after which the book just… stops.

While the book’s pacing problems make its second half much less fun than the first, I think that looking at this book purely in terms of plot means somewhat missing the point.

While Near the Bone is structured and marketed like a thriller, I feel that Henry was a lot more interested in the character of Maddie than she was in people running away from monsters. In truth, I think the book’s focal point is not the moments of tension but the moments of decompression and self-reflection that follow in their wake.

The first third of the book is all about the horrific realities of Maddie’s married life: Henry starts by showing us Maddie’s fear of her husband and then justifies that fear by showing us the brutal beatings that Maddie endures on an almost daily basis. This is a novel that dwells on Maddie being choked into unconsciousness, being beaten in the snow and left for dead, and being punched in the face until the swelling makes it impossible to see out of one eye. This is a novel about poorly-set broken bones and shattered teeth pulled out with no anaesthetic. Of loveless sex and stillborn children that are blamed on a grieving mother who knows no life beyond one of ceaseless misery.

A lot of genre novels flirt with the idea of trauma and abuse only to spare us the details as well as the repercussions. To her absolute credit, Henry does not do this: She shares every punch, every kick, and every cutting rebuke. We see the horrors that Maddie is forced to endure and we see their results: By the time the monster turns up and starts killing things, Maddie is an absolute psychological mess.

While Near the Bone is ostensibly about a woman literally escaping from the clutches of a monster, the meat of the novel lies in the psychological processes that might allow a victim of long-term abuse to escape and rebuild her life. Where a conventional thriller emphasises the tense moments and uses the slow moments to throw those moments into contrast, Henry’s focus is on the quiet moments in which Maddie tries to remember the possibility of a life without her husband. The moments of tension are only there to prompt introspection and psychological change.

The first change that Maddie undergoes is remembering that she used to have another name: Samantha. At first, Samantha is almost like a dissociated personality; a voice in Maddie’s head that is full of anger and eager to question the laws handed down by her abusive husband. Puzzled as to where this Samantha voice might be coming from, Maddie starts to reflect first on her long-lost sister, then on her mother, and then on the fact that she met her husband when she was only eight. The more Maddie remembers, the more agency she acquires. This process of self-discovery is long and drawn out, we sit through many pages of Maddie whining and crying before she connects enough with her past to start becoming Samantha.

While I admire and mostly enjoyed this process of self-discovery, I must admit that I did occasionally get frustrated with the sense of repetition. The first couple of times Maddie is filled with paranoia and self-loathing, you can understand it.  By the seventh or eighth time it happens you cannot help but roll your eyes and wish that she’d pull herself together. While Maddie hitting psychological impasses that she needs to work around might be realistic, Henry returns to that particular well a few too many times given the relative lack of depth to both the character and her relationships.

For me, the problem with Near the Bone as a character piece is that Maddie is very nearly a blank slate. The adult Maddie we encounter at the beginning of the novel is understandably simple in that her only concern in life is the need to not enrage her husband. Henry then has Maddie embark on a journey of self-discovery allowing her to reconnect with the person she was as a child thus allowing her to find the strength of mind required to survive a deadly situation. This could have worked beautifully had Henry done a better job of managing the return and re-integration of the Samantha personality but because Samantha ceased to exist at the age of around 8 and adult Maddie has little personality, you don’t really get those moments of sudden recognition born of old neural pathways reactivating to unlock long-buried feelings. In her defence, Henry does flirt with this idea by having Maddie uncover Samantha’s capacity of anger but we never move past this. Rather than reconnecting with the person she was, Maddie spends the book remembering chocolate and grilled cheese sandwiches whilst repeatedly failing to understand references to modern technology.

This lack of characterisation also extends to the male characters in the book in that Maddie’s husband is nothing but an angry monotonous sneer while the outsider she befriends is nothing but a source of incredibly stupid decisions that Maddie must find the courage to challenge. Maddie’s relationship with the outsider does have its moments such as her surprised relief when a flash of anger doesn’t result in his trying to beat her, or his making snarky remarks that Maddie takes personally but this could have been pushed a little further. A better realised outsider would have been a good sounding board for Maddie’s emerging personality but instead it is literally just a succession of stupid ideas.

Near the Bone is not a bad book — it reads very well and I enjoyed the time I spent with it – but it is somewhat frustrating. On the one hand, the book is not quite tight enough to function as a thriller. On the other hand, it lacks the depth and psychological nuance to function as a character piece. The thriller beats detract from the character beats by virtue of seeming cartoonish and the character beats are so drawn out that they undermine the pacing of the plot.  There’s a very good book to be written about this type of situation and with this more character-centric focus but Near the Bone is not quite there.

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