Literature professor Murray Wilson has been fascinated by the obscure poet Archie Lunan ever since he happened upon Lunan’s single poetry collection when he was 16. Now, he’s using his sabbatical to research Lunan’s life, if he can juggle his affair with his department head’s wife and his fraught relationship with his artist brother.
It’s a lot to manage, and I wasn’t sure in the early chapters of Louise Welsh’s novel if Welsh herself would be able to juggle all these disparate elements. For the first half of the book, Murray shuttles back and forth between Glasgow and Edinburgh, answering one unexpected call after another, coping with surprise meet-ups, and sneaking in research where he can. It’s a little too busy of a narrative, especially given that nothing of significance seems to happen nor is there much of a sense of mystery.
But Welsh’s writing flows nicely, and Lunan’s (supposedly?) accidental drowning 30 years earlier held just enough promise to keep me interested. As Murray’s research continues, he learns that the story may not be as straightforward as he had believed. He starts interviewing people who knew Lunan, and almost all of them seem to have something to hide. Murray even begins to find connections between Lunan and his colleagues that he never knew about, and the sense of menace starts to grow. This was what hooked me.
By the second half of the book, set on the Island of Lismore, where Lunan met his end and where his girlfriend Christie still resides, the investigation has picked up steam. There are even hints of the occult. The island itself makes for a fabulous setting. There are ruined castles, archaeological digs, sinkholes, and brochs; fertile ground for a mystery. And Welsh ramps up the excitement in the final chapters, leaving readers with a satisfyingly ambiguous thriller of an ending. Questions are answered, but which answer to choose?
The overarching idea behind the mystery hinges on notions of privacy and the ways people use others for their own ends. For example, some use others’ stories to gain fame for themselves. That’s what Murray is doing as he picks through the detritus of Lunan’s life. His brother Jack does something similar when he films their father’s senile ramblings and uses the film in an art exhibition. Is this crass, or is it a way of getting at an important truth? Is revelation a violation or an exorcism? Just as with the mystery of Lunan’s death, the answers are unclear.
Welsh’s writing is loaded with detail, all of which adds to the atmosphere, whether Murray has unthinkingly slipped into a strip club to avoid someone on the street or whether he’s having tea in the private sitting room of a B&B. Welsh gives readers a strong sense of the people and places Murray encounters on his surprisingly wide-ranging journey. It’s a book in which I really wanted to savor the details—to smell the smells and hear the sounds and taste the chips (even when the chips weren’t so good).
Although Naming the Bones got off to a slow start, the last half was extremely satisfying. Welsh is nowhere near replacing Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine or Kate Atkinson as one of my favorite authors of dark psychological mysteries, but she certainly has potential. Naming the Bones is her fourth book, and the others do look promising. Any recommendations?