The Woken Dream – Boneland, by Alan Garner

This piece was originally published at Pornokitsch

I almost didn’t write this.

I’ve wanted to for weeks, since I finished the final part of Alan Garner’s Weirdstone trilogy, but I’ve been hesitating. It felt vaguely sacrilegious, like shouting in a crypt or shaking a friend awake when they’re smiling at their dream. Sometimes (perhaps you get this too), I’m reluctant to delve into the machinery of the books that impact me most deeply. I don’t want to look too close in case their effect collapses, quantum-like, under my observation, In case I wake the sleeper, and the dream dies.

The existence of this post is a testament to two convictions. The first is that this book is pressing so hard against the inside of my skull right now that it will start to run out of my tear ducts if I don’t talk about it. The second is that Garner’s dream is much, much too strong for me to kill.

This isn’t a review, by the way. I don’t know whether Boneland is a good book or not, I’m not sure the term really means anything for a story with so few comparators – an adult novel to conclude a children’s trilogy, written fifty years after the first two volumes came out. I do know there were times it stole my breath.

A quick plot summary then – for all the good that will do us. Boneland picks up Colin Whisterfield decades after the end of the Moon of Gomrath (1963), which saw his sister Susan disappear. He’s become a brilliant but unfocussed astronomer working at a British radio telescope. He’s suppressed all memories from the first two books, but on some level, just below consciousness he’s still searching the stars for his lost sister. Boneland follows him as – both inside and outside of therapy – his memories breach back into his conscious mind. Meanwhile, in what feels like a deeper ancestral memory, a man dances and sings and carves images into a rock face. He performs these rituals rooted in faith to keep the soul of the place he lives in alive.

It’s difficult to know how much Boneland’s impact on me owes to the highly specific circumstances of its creation. I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath more than 15 years ago (though I’ve reread the former since). Most of Garner’s readers will have gone as long or longer since reading the first two books. Their contents stirred me hugely when I read them, but all their vivid details were deeply silted under sediments of later memories and adult cares.

I have never been placed into such acute sympathy with a book’s protagonist as when Colin’s memories erupt back into his mind. Weirdstone’s witches and Gomrath’sWild Hunt rushed back to me at exactly at the same time. That little piece of me that is still the boy that read those books clamped his hand round my heart in shock, and refused to let go. This book haunted me, literally, and it used the fragments its older siblings had left in my mind to do it.

But Boneland went further. Having got me and Colin in synch, it used that symbiosis. Reading the book was an intensely personal experience. Its tale of a man dredging himself for lost memories and of a dreamer battling desperately against the dying of his dream felt like it was talking to me, and about me. It tapped into the bit of me that’s scared that I have lost something since I first read Weirdstone in the harsh light of my Grandfather’s study lamp, the part that thinks I should have clung tighter to that bone deep belief that magic is real and that a place really can have a soul. It’s a dream that would look like madness had I held onto it any longer, but its echoes have never really left me. It’s why I do what I do.

That’s why (and if you’ve read it, you’ll understand this) I found the end of Boneland one of the most moving reading experiences of my life.

This sleeper, probably, is as awake as he’ll ever be, but the dream is still very much alive.

6 thoughts on “The Woken Dream – Boneland, by Alan Garner

  1. Hi Tom,

    Your article so accurately reflects my thoughts on the book that for a moment I thought I was reading something I’d somehow written and forgotten about. I wrote a brief review on Amazon which mirrors what you’ve said, albeit rather less eruditely. I’ve read all of Alan’s books over the years; indeed Weirdstone changed my life, almost 45 years ago now, but I’ve never read a book like Boneland, and I don’t expect to again. It moved me to write to Alan to finally express my thanks for his work, and he was gracious enough to reply. It’s wonderful to see that his writing has affected someone else in a similar way; he’s a literary shaman, pure and simple.

    1. I’ve just re-read Boneland and share those complex feelings. My copy of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is next to me, bought at the Co-op with pocket money one Friday night after school half a century ago. The sense of loss at reading Boneland is palpable, loss of Colin’s sister, loss of childhood, loss of an era, loss of our literal and metaphorical marbles. The sophistication of the setting, a palimpsest of cosmology, psychiatry, archaeology, made me yearn for the old Colin and Susan, the old Alan, the old me, while appreciating the frayed lifeline into that world Boneland offered.

  2. Thank you.

    My tutor said to me in 1956, “If you influence two people through your work, you’re winning.’

    It seems I’m winning.

  3. More than two! I read “Weirdstone” and “Gomrath” and then “Elidor” to supposedly failing students aged 10-12, when they were first issued. These young people responded by creating terrific art and literature, including poetry…not bad for council estate kids!
    My own boys were thrilled by the books and read voraciously. The middle of my trio , like myself, devours and re-reads your work.
    I am now in my 70s and the reading project for 2018 is to re-read all of Alan Garner’s work…what a pleasure…..thank you, Alan Garner, thank you a million times…

  4. Алан, напишите, ещё пожалуйста – книгу. От сердца благодарю. Олу Пимпитус

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