Bone Gap by Laura Ruby was just nominated for the National Book Award. It is the only YA book on the award’s long list that I have read so far – I listened to it on audio last month. I mostly enjoyed this compelling story, though I was a bit jarred by the sudden presence of magic/supernatural occurrences toward the end.
Finn is an older teenage boy living in a small rural town with his older brother, Sean. The two live alone – their parents have been out of the picture for quite some time. Seam dreams of going to medical school, but for now, he works as an EMT in town to support their small family. Most members of the community consider Finn odd and have nicknamed him Spaceman and Moonface because he tends to stare into space and not look people in the eyes.
Finn and Sean’s quiet life is interrupted one night when they find a beautiful young woman hiding in their barn. She’s been badly injured, in what looks to Sean like a classic case of abuse, so they take her in and care for her. Roza speaks mostly Polish and is a kind, scared woman who quickly finds a place in Finn and Sean’s hearts and in their spare room. The three are happy together in their new little family when the unthinkable happens: Roza is taken away by a mysterious man in a black SUV.
Finn was the only witness to the abduction, and he’s not even 100% sure it was an abduction because Roza told him it was OK, even though it looked to Finn as if she was taken by force. Finn blames himself because he can’t describe the man to the police, but he is determined to find out what happened to Roza. His best friend, Miguel, tells him it’s not his fault, but he feels responsible. Meanwhile, Finn gets to closer to Petey, a local girl who keeps bees with her mother, and with whom he falls in love.
That’s how the book seemed to me for the first two-thirds or more: like a realistic drama with a bit of mystery and suspense to it, populated by interesting characters. I was completely pulled into this world, riveted by the story, and couldn’t wait to find out what had happened to Roza. Then, I began to notice odd things in the narrative that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. It took me a while (probably longer than it should have!) to finally figure out that there was an otherworldly element of magic or the supernatural at work here, and toward the end, that magical realm became far more clear.
I don’t mind magic or supernatural occurrences when I know they are a part of the story – a time travel plot, for instance, or a ghost within the story – but in this case, it took me by surprise and felt rather jarring to me. I felt as if I was reading one book (and enjoying it) and then suddenly was thrust into an entirely different story. Reading others’ reviews and descriptions of Bone Gap, I can see a few others who felt the same way that I did but many more readers who saw the magical signs much earlier than I did and enjoyed that aspect of the story. So, maybe it’s just me, and perhaps I would have felt differently if I’d have read a summary ahead of time and knew what to expect.
Clearly, the novel is very well-written, hence its National Book Award nomination, and everyone seems to agree that it has interesting characters and an engaging, unique plot. Beyond that, I think how much you like this book will depend in part on how much you like magical realism. Two blogging friends at My Head is Full of Books and Library Matters (their reviews at the links) pointed out to me that the novel is based on the myth of Persephone. I know nothing about mythology, so perhaps knowing that myth would have deepened my appreciation of the book and its multi-layered meaning. Overall, I enjoyed the compelling story and unique, interesting characters but definitely liked the first part of the book better than the last part.