Thirteen-year-old Emma grows up under an Eastern European dictatorship where oppression seems eternal. When her dissident parents die in a car accident, she’s taken to an orphanage, only to be adopted soon after by a grandmother she has never met.
While her homeland is shattered by a violent revolution, Emma—like a witch’s apprentice—comes to learn the ways of her new grandmother, who can tell fortunes from coffee dregs, cause and heal pain at will, and shares her home with the ghost of her husband. But this is not the main reason her grandmother is treated with suspicion and contempt by most people in town. They suspect her or her husband of having been involved in the disappearance of top secret government files.
As Emma learns her family history, she begins to see that, for her grandparents, the alternate reality shaped by magic was their only form of freedom. The Bone Fire is a political Gothic, carried along by the menace and promise of a fairy tale.
Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy in return for an honest review.
I’ve seen a lot of really good reviews for this book, and while I’m glad so many people have enjoyed it, I honestly don’t understand why. For me, the writing style was such a massive impediment to the overall story that I could barely get through it.
The dormitory is empty. The others are in class — that’s where I was too before I was called to the headmistress’s office. I go over to my bed, lean down, and pull out the round suitcase underneath. It’s burgundy, and the zipper doesn’t work properly; it broke almost as soon as we bought it. Mother was very angry because we couldn’t get it fixed, and we couldn’t return it either. I put the suitcase on the bed. I go over to my cupboard and open it. My clothes are there on hangers: my worn-out, quilted red winter coat, my three blouses, my two skirts, my one pair of jeans, which now extend only to the middle of my shins. I take out the clothes and place them on my bed. I go back to the cupboard. On the middle shelves there are three pairs of underwear, socks, stockings; on the upper shelf are my gym clothes and my gym bag, as well as Mother’s old competition tracksuit; on the lower shelf are my two Norwegian-patterned knit sweaters. I take everything over to the bed. I take my shoes out of the cupboard; apart from my Mary Janes, which I’m wearing, I have one pair of black patent-leather shoes, and one pair of white tennis shoes with green rubber soles. Now only my old school uniform and my Pioneer uniform are left in the cupboard. Ever since New Year’s we have not been permitted to wear them; since then, we don’t need uniforms, and the Communist Party and its youth branch, the Young Pioneers, no longer exist. But I still take these items out of the cupboard. The woven yellow insignia is falling off the button of my Pioneer shirt; the threads of the tassels are tangled together. The cupboard is almost empty now; there is just one more thing left in it. It is a photograph pasted on the inside of the cupboard door. It’s a color photograph, but the hues are fairly pale, Father said because he wasn’t able to develop the film properly. The picture shows the three of us, Mother, Father, and me. It was taken up in the mountains by the shore of a lake; it’s the only picture of all three of us together. Father took it with a self-timer. We were all laughing at him because after Father placed the camera on the stump of a tree and pulled the timing mechanism, he ran over to us so quickly that he wasn’t paying attention and he tripped over a tree branch but then just as quickly he jumped up and kept on running to make sure he would get into the picture on time, and he did. He even had enough time to put his arms around me and Mother too, and there he stood — and it was only then that we noticed that a pine branch had gotten stuck in his sweater, and that made us laugh even more. I look at the picture, at Mother’s loosened hair; I place my index finger on it, and I caress her hair. I don’t feel anything, only the smoothness of the photograph’s surface. I dig my fingernails underneath the picture and carefully pry it away from the cupboard door. It comes off nicely, not tearing anywhere, only a tiny piece of chipboard from the cupboard door sticks to a corner in the back. I walk over to the bed, and as I pick up my red, blue, and black Norwegian sweater, the plastic bag stuffed into one of the sleeves makes a crackling sound. I pull a small yellow bag from the sleeve. Mother’s French silk scarf is folded up nicely inside; tucked in one corner of the scarf are Mother’s and Father’s wedding rings. I haven’t touched these since the funeral, and even now I hold them only through the plastic bag, thinking about the jasmine scent of Mother’s perfume, thinking that it should still be there in her scarf. I slip the photograph between the layers of the silk scarf, and I pick up the bag, feeling the rigidity of the photograph between the layers of plastic and silk. I am about to stuff the bag back into the sleeve of the sweater when suddenly I think of Grandmother’s fingers and how she fastened the watch onto my wrist. I place the bag on the bed, and I don’t stuff it back into the sweater. I open the suitcase. Father’s two old belts are rolled up together in it next to my old pencil case. I take out the pencil case, remove my old pencil sharpener from it — the blade is getting dull — and with my little finger, I unscrew the screw that holds it in place. I take out the blade, cut the inner lining at the bottom of the suitcase, and put the bag with the scarf and the wedding rings between the lining of the suitcase and its fake leather exterior, then smooth it out from the inside and the outside. The fake leather is nice and thick, and there’s no way to tell that there’s anything in the lining. I take out Father’s two belts, hook the buckle of the black one into the last hole of the brown one, pull on the buckle, and push the end of the belt underneath the steel-riveted leather strap. Now it’s long enough to use as a strap around the suitcase. After I pack my clothes and my shoes, I take my nightgown out from beneath my pillow and place it on the top. I close the suitcase, lift it up, shove the belt underneath the handle of the suitcase, tug on it strongly, then buckle it up. I’m ready; I’ve packed my things.
This is an incredibly long quote, and normally not something I would put in a review. I have left it here in its entity, however, because it so clearly shows the multitude of issues I had with the writing on every single page of this novel. Every single action the character is doing is described, drowning any significant action in unnecessary, boring detail. To make sure every single action is documented, many of the sentences are short which gives the writing an incredibly choppy feel. The excessive amount of detail combined with the present tense PLUS the fact that there is no dialogue (only the reporting of speech) made it almost impossible to actually focus on the story. I had to actively work on not zoning out while reading every minutiae of events that happened to the character. I’m surprised that the author didn’t tell me every time the character breathed.
The word count could have been cut in half and this still would have been the same story. The minutiae of detail not only slowed the pace between any significant events in the story, but also made those important moments (when you could identify them) feel like just one more item on a list. The absence of any dialogue also made if difficult to feel like any of the characters were distinct since the only voice you hear the entire time is Emma’s monotone.
If you can get past all of that, there is still the fact that the story doesn’t even have a complete ending. It simply stops rather than finishes.
The combination of historical events, politics, and mythology is theory was a great idea, but the multitude of issues in the execution of these ideas creates a book that is hard to focus on for more than a few minutes at a time, let alone actually finish.