Cut to nearly forty years later and I discover this book, misfiled on the children's book shelves in Berkelouw in Oxford St. I didn't even know it existed -- what a find!
Boneland is the final part of a trilogy that began over fifty years ago with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. I tried to re-read Weirdstone a few years ago and recoiled in dismay from the elves-and-pixies-and-wicked-witches vibe; I can't really even remember the story. Some readers who loved Weirdstone and Gomrath have likewise recoiled from this mature, dense, dark conclusion of the trilogy. I say again: Boneland is not a children's book.
Boneland finds Colin, one of the two child protagonists of the earlier books, adult and damaged, condemned to forget (everything that happened before he was thirteen) and to remember (in eidetic detail, everything that's happened to him since). He's searching for his missing sister, which is perhaps a way of making himself whole. Meg, his psychiatrist, is helping him with his quest, but she may not be all she seems. Interwoven with Colin's story is that of an isolated, prehistoric shaman, who fears his ritual responsibilities will die with him, and thus spell the end of the world. He is also searching for a woman, this time to make a child to inherit his sacred knowledge. His prayers are answered, but not in the way he expects.
If I hadn't discovered the Guardian's reading group discussion of Boneland, I would have struggled to catch about nine tenths of the references and resonances in this slim but densely packed novel. With the aid of Google maps, I can trace the geography of Colin's home on Alderley Edge in Cheshire, the site of most of Garner's work. With the help of the internet, I can interpret the poetic allusions, the echoes of medieval legend, and the callbacks to the earlier novels.
Is this a flaw? Should I be able to read the novel simply, on its own terms, without help? I would argue not. With the help of the learned Guardian readers, sharing their expertise in local archaeology, herbs, Gawain and the Green Knight, particle physics, astronomy, the threefold goddess, and much more, the experience of reading Boneland becomes infinitely deepened and enriched.
I first read most of the book fast, on the plane on the way home. I'm now reading it again, more slowly, line by line, stopping to check references and consult maps. Both ways of reading have been exhilarating in their own way.
Alan Garner is the writer I admire and revere above all others, in his spare, scalpel-sharp style (next door to reading poetry in prose), in his wise, dense, important subject matter, in his light-footed wit and humour. There is no other writer like him; his books can be hard work, but my god, they are so rewarding. He has said that Boneland may be his last novel. I hope it isn't, but if it proves to be, it would be a worthy farewell.