On the back cover of Sandra Ireland’s second novel is the question: “What happens when you fall in love with the wrong person?” The answer after reading Bone Deep is: a lot more than you could ever have imagined. The consequences are felt through the pages of this book like ripples after a stone is thrown into the still, deep waters of the mill pond near the homes of our central characters.
Told in alternate chapters by Mac – a retired academic compiling a book of short stories based on local legends – and Lucie, newly employed as Mac’s “Girl Friday”, and threaded through with the legend of two long-dead sisters, Bone Deep takes us to the village of Fettermore for a year of unearthing secrets.
Mac is brisk to the point of being brusque with Lucie, and far happier talking to her dogs than to her son, Arthur, who is a baker in a café in the village. Lucie is, on the surface, yet another slightly feckless young woman running away from a heartbreak and an unsympathetic family, though we get a more rounded portrait as the chapters build.
Two dozen pages in and the two women – neither of them particularly likeable, yet both intriguing – have my full attention.
And then Reuben arrives on Lucie’s doorstep, and Mac’s research sparks memories of Arthur’s childhood and her miller husband, Jim.
The mill grinds its way steadily into Mac’s thoughts – even as she tries to forget its secrets she is drawn to it compulsively; the looming physical and psychological presence of the mill and its workings becoming both motif and character.
While Mac turns her storyteller’s attention to Bella and Elspeth, two sisters remembered in a Borders ballad, Lucie is confronted with her own sister, Jane, and a family tragedy which has the reader anticipating an unravelling of their relationship. But instead it is Mac who unravels, as she works on the story of sisters and feels its echoes in her own earlier life, and in Lucie’s.
Ireland’s focus on the chasms and bridges between the women in her
novel is refreshing in its lack of sentimentality, with the hints of what is to come being carefully crafted to pique our curiosity.
Having put two and two together, I was anticipating an emotional and thrilling ending. But the final chapters take Bone Deep from being a beautifully written and thoughtfully constructed psychological study into sheer gothic novel nightmare territory – with the pages turning all the faster for it, leaving me breathless.
And the ending reminded me, after all that talk of the mill, that flour is combustible and explosive…
Bone Deep is only Ireland’s second novel, but it’s a tremendous example of writing and plotting, and I await her next work eagerly.
Bone Deep, by Sandra Ireland, Polygon, £8.99