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bonegapSeptember Discussion – Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

As it was the last week of term 3 understandably we had only a small group to discuss Bone Gap but we ended up having a lively discussion about this complex and lyrical book.  We began by trying to classify the novel and basically concluded that it defied categorisation as just one genre and had elements of all these genres: fantasy, magical realism, literary horror and a love story.  The parallels to the Greek legends of Demeter and Persephone and Cupid and Psyche were discussed and we talked about the impact the Greek myths and legends have had on Western literature throughout the ages.

Magic is certainly strongly represented in this novel, yet we thought it was tending more to fantasy than magical realism.  We went over some of the magical elements.  For example, Roza’s abductor (Hades?) is clearly not of this world and her captivity changes according to what her abductor thinks she wants.  Some of the scenes between them were absolutely chilling. A black racehorse (Demeter appears in legend as a black-winged mare) mysteriously shows up in Finn’s barn, and carries him to Petey’s house. When Finn and Petey ride at night, the horse takes them flying over a mysterious cliff in the cornfields where they ride for an unnaturally long time before they land.  In fact the whole area of Bone Gap is brimming with the magic of hidden passageways in the cornfields between worlds. The element of magic adds a mood and tone to the novel that is both illusionary and suspenseful; at times we felt that we couldn’t really trust what we were reading and read with some trepidation and anxiety.

One of the clearest themes of this novel is the perception of beauty.  What we really appreciated about this text was the way it exposes the hypocrisy of the treatment of women in our society.  Women are punished for both conforming and non-conforming to sexist, patriarchal expectations of beauty and femininity.  Both Petey and Roza are strong, clever and worthy characters whose lives have been determined by society’s expectations of beauty.  Roza’s character reveals that beauty can be a heavy burden for a woman.  She finds it difficult to trust others because her experience, in Poland, at University and in Bone Gap, has shown that she is an object, both desired and maligned, because of her physical appearance.  When others see her they cannot see beyond her physical exterior to see her fierce intelligence.  She is kidnapped because she is, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Yet beauty in itself is not the problem, it is the perception that drives the narrative.

Similarly, Petey suffers because of her perceived “unattractiveness”. When Petey (the town’s “ugly girl”) rejects the advances of the boy at the party the retribution of her community is swift and cruel.  The cruelty is apparent in that it is easier for the town to believe that Petey performs the acts of which she is accused, rather than believing that the ugly girl would reject one of the town’s fine young men.  It is almost as if he was doing her a favour by showing her some attention so she is doubly ungrateful for spurning him.  This is a pattern and story we noted that has been repeated in many villages and towns throughout history.  Similarly, we noted that the town is very quick to judge her relationship with Finn and to believe that he is using her,

Strange boy, ugly girl, maybe he’s taking advantage of her, maybe she’ll do anything to …

It is difficult for the townsfolk to comprehend that Finn was not in love with Roza because they are both so beautiful, although Finn’s beauty is counter-balanced by his oddness.

We spent some time discussing Petey’s reaction to identifying Finn’s condition believing that this confirmed everything she thought about herself.  On one hand we wondered if this was perhaps reinforcing the stereotype, that Finn only loved her because he couldn’t see her true exterior, yet after much discussion we determined that this was not the case.  Out of all the people he knows Petey’s face is the one that he does always recognise.  Finn sees Petey,

He looked at her like she used to look at herself in mirrors and windows and ponds so long ago.  As if her face was interesting and unusual – unforgettable even.

and he describes her as,

Furiously, smoothly, ferociously, surprisingly, deliciously, quickly, slowly.

Again, the idea of perspective is paramount.  Many people in this town look and judge but very few really see the truth. We also asked the question, how ugly is Petey?  What is ugliness anyway?  Because we see Petey primarily through Finn’s eyes we see a vibrant, clever, sarcastic young woman with whom Finn is positively in love and lust, therefore as readers we are sometimes shocked by the observations of the other characters.

Finn’s condition is prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. The term prosopagnosia comes from the Greek words for “face” and “lack of knowledge.”  We talked about this condition and that the late neurologist and author Oliver Sachs and actor Brad Pitt purportedly have this condition.

We talked also about the minor characters in the novel.  We were a little unsure of Charlie Valentine’s true role and his part in Roza’s abduction.  We spent some time discussing Sean and his inability to chase after Roza.  Clearly, Sean had been well schooled in disappointment – every goal or aim of his life had been altered because of the actions of others, his father, his mother and to some extent Finn, therefore it was as if he entirely expected Roza to leave him.

One of the elements we really loved about this story was the depiction of small-town America with its bullies, rumours, local eccentrics, name-calling – “Spaceman and Sidetrack and Moonface”, yet also community solidarity.  We also were very taken with the language and imagery, some of which is just beautiful, especially the scenes involving Petey and Finn and the depiction of first love,

The twitch of her nerves was like the beating of a billion tiny wings, as if messages passed from his breath and his hands through her skin and back again, the way bees stroke one another’s antennae, feeding one another by touch.

Overall, this was a somewhat strange, quirky, yet exquisite novel, well deserving of its nomination as a finalist in the US National Book Awards.  Some of us felt that Finn was one of the best young male protagonists we had read about in a long time. At times, going back and forth between the different perspectives and multiple layers made for a challenging read but it is well worth the effort.

Here is a theory of love
You find a sister, you gain
a brother, you lose
a sister, you lose
a brother, you lose a cat,
you find a girl, you find the cat,
you hope
that there is nothing left to lose, and
all there is, is there to find

For an interesting interview with Laura Ruby see here: http://bit.ly/1FhI9MI