Cloud of Bone is another of those books that I’m much too prejudiced to be reviewing, but I will anyway. Bernice Morgan is not only my favourite Newfoundland author, not only a friend and mentor, but also my aunt. I have to tell you that in the interests of full disclosure, and then I have to beg you to believe that even if I knew nothing about her and had just randomly picked Cloud of Bone off a bookshelf, it would still have blown me away.
Cloud of Bone tells three separate stories that don’t fully come together till the very end of the novel. The first is the story of Kyle Holloway, a Newfoundland teenager who almost accidentally enlists in the navy in World War Two and ends up a deserter, hiding out in a place that once provided him with sanctuary as a child. I found Kyle in many ways the most compelling of the three characters: he is a difficult, desperate young man without much sense of hope or ambition, ready to sink to the lowest common denominator as soon as one is offered. Yet he is likable as well as pitiable, and as he waits for what he thinks will be certain death I couldn’t help hoping fate would turn around for Kyle.
The second, largest portion of the novel tells the story of Shawnadithit, last of the Beothuk Indians. Her people were wiped out after the coming of the European settlers: it’s a story every Newfoundlander knows, our national shame. Shawnadithit’s story is an intense and intimate portrayal of a young girl coming of age amid a culture that is dying. Her voice and her story are vivid and chilling. I usually find it difficult to get into books about aboriginal peoples in their “primitive” state: their world never seems real, perhaps because it’s so completely remote from ours. That’s not a problem with Cloud of Bone — Shawnadithit’s world truly does seem remote and alien, yet so real I felt I’d been there. This novel did for my perception of the Beothuks what Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns did for my perception of Afghanistan — turned a distant and unreal tragedy into something I could taste, feel and smell. In this portion of the novel, Bernice Morgan has done for Newfoundland’s native people what she did for our first European settlers in Random Passage — she has truly brought the story to life.
The final portion of the book turns to a recently widowed anthropologist, Judith Muir. Judith is attempting to pick up the pieces of a shattered life in England in the present day, when she makes a shocking discovery that brings her life into collision with the lives of Kyle Holloway and Shawnadithit. This portion of the book is perhaps the most intimate and personal. It’s also the section in which Morgan reflects overtly on the themes that have threaded through the book: themes of human violence toward humans, and the curious role memory plays in keeping alive both atrocities, and the people by whom and against whom they were committed.
Cloud of Bone is a completely absorbing book, skilfully and lyrically written, in which three radically different individuals and the worlds in which they live are lovingly re-created with every tiny detail in place. I haven’t read a better book in a long time, and I don’t expect to anytime soon.