Doll Bones

doll bonesI’ve been seeing reviews of Holly Black’s books here and there on blogs I like (Jeanne likes her, for instance), and I’m fairly sure that it was Ana’s review of Doll Bones that finally tipped me over the pick-it-up-at-the-library edge. And since it was the only book I read in April (!!), it bears a mention, at least.

The book is about three children who are just on the cusp of becoming adolescents. Zach, Alice, and Poppy have been playing together since young childhood, and for years they’ve had an ongoing game, involving action figures and dolls and a story they tell each other about the heroes and heroines and pirates and ninjas and mermaids that sail the dangerous seas of the land they’ve invented. Their story is ruled by The Queen, a fragile 19th-century porcelain doll who lives in a china cabinet at Poppy’s house. These days, though, the story has become dangerous in a different way: they’re more aware of the contemptuous way their schoolmates would see their play, and their parents aren’t as thrilled about the amount of time the three of them spend together.

Zach’s father brings the game to an abrupt end when he throws all his action figures away, telling Zach that he’s much too old to be playing with them. Zach is furious, but too uncomfortable to share his rage with his friends; instead, he tells them he’s no longer interested in the game. But the girls have one more important part of the story still to tell: The Queen, whose china may be made of the ground-up bones of a dead girl, wants them to do something for her, and unless they obey, they may suffer.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book. The cover is well and truly creepy, and I was expecting to be genuinely scared, as I was with Coraline, for instance. That wasn’t the case. Ana’s review, which I hope you clicked through and read, talks a good deal about what’s really happening in this book: the three friends are shifting their friendship and their understanding of what they expect from each other and from their long-standing bond of the imagination, given the gender expectations society holds out like tainted candy.

Most of the book is told from Zach’s point of view. We see him wondering what Alice thinks of him, and noticing her in new ways. We watch him weighing the game: how important is this life of the imagination and his loyalty to these girls, given his social life, sports, possible dates? But the real cry of fear comes from Poppy:

“I hate that you’re going to leave me behind. I hate that everyone calls it growing up, but it seems like dying. It feels like each of you is being possessed and I’m next.”

Melodramatic? Yeah. A little. Growing up never felt like dying to me, maybe because no one ever told me that excessive reading was inappropriate for girls and I should get my head out of the clouds and pay more attention to boys. But you see what she means: if becoming a teenager means forgetting the narratives that helped make you who you are, then possession is nearly the right word for it.

Doll Bones wasn’t as scary as I expected (or maybe hoped.) But it was pretty good — reasonably well-written and exciting, and the characters were solid. To be honest, I’d have liked to see a lot more of the story they were telling each other. It felt as if there were a living jungle of narrative behind the fairly-tame quest the three children were doing for The Queen, and I’d have loved to get in among the tigers and read it.

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7 Responses to Doll Bones

  1. Alex says:

    Is there any suggestion that this is drawing on the world that the Brontës created for themselves? I must really get a copy of this because the idea of the narratives that children tell themselves to make sense of a world they find at best confusing and at worst threatening fascinates me.

    • Jenny says:

      There isn’t any hint of that, but now that you’ve suggested it, I love the idea! That would have added a wonderful layer of complexity for me. And I agree that those narratives that we all tell ourselves — not just children! — are vital to our psychology. It is fascinating, particularly when it comes to the boundaries we choose to set. Thanks for the idea!

  2. Jeanne says:

    Now that my daughter is past the prime age for reading Holly Black tales she has dropped off my radar. What you say about needing a layer of complexity rings true to me about many of the tales, but I did enjoy them despite that and will probably go looking for this one now. It’s the kind of thing I like for beach reading–easy, and easier to take in the middle of the day surrounded by people and sunlight.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, though I assure you the creep factor is not very high. I did think of you, reading it, because it has at least the flavor of necromancy about it. It’s definitely communication with the dead, if nothing else.

      • Jeanne says:

        Recently I looked up necromancy and found that the first definition is communication with the dead, rather than resurrection!

  3. I read a Holly Black book years ago and didn’t care for it, but then The Coldest Girl in Coldtown really startled and impressed me, when I read it earlier this year. It seems like Holly Black has come into her own. I am always in to read about the stories characters tell themselves.

    • Jenny says:

      I absolutely knew you’d read one this year, but I couldn’t find it on your site! I couldn’t remember if it was this one or another one. I’m particularly fond of the story-in-a-story thing, too, which was one reason I was so pleased with The Blind Assassin.

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