THE BONE GARDEN by Tess Gerritsen

I plunged into Tess Gerritsen’s world with The Surgeon. I admired her skill and enjoyed the story, while feeling at arms distance from the characters. The Bone Garden pleased me in ways The Surgeon did not.

Within the first six pages Gerritsen uses her skill in harnessing words to deliver actions and images that raise questions, and suggest the layers of secrets to be revealed about the mystery behind the garden.

When she had first walked through the rooms […] and spied the bit of antique wallpaper peeking through a tear in the many layers that had since covered it, she’d known the house was special. 

Each chapter reveals something new about character or situation. The pace is a foot and ought to be studied by every writer. So is Gerritsen’s ability to deliver the 1830’s storyline into the reader’s lap through the viewpoint of character.

One of the female lodgers had lured a client upstairs. Rose understood the necessity of it, knew that a few minutes with your legs spread could mean the difference between supper and a growling belly. But the noises the couple made, on the other side of that thin curtain, brought a mortified flush to Rose’s cheeks. She could not bring herself to look at Norris […] Reluctantly, she looked at him and found his gaze unflinching, as though he was determined to ignore the rutting and dying that was happening only a few feet away. As if the filthy sheet had curtained them off into a separate world, where she was the sole focus of his attention. 

Each character is fully formed with goals and obstacles that naturally collide to increase the stakes. Add in the real life character of Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior and the reader is effectively transported to another time, where the West End Reaper makes Jack the Ripper’s modus operandi appear like child’s play.

I was so expertly misled in regard to the identity of the Reaper; if I were planning on writing a mystery I would dissect The Bone Garden. I would not say the same when it comes to writing novels with past and present storylines.

Writing a coherent, engaging novel is hard enough, in my experience, without complicating the execution by including a past and present storyline. The stakes need to be enormously high in the present to warrant delving into a past event that is better off forgotten—and I believe the protagonist needs to feel the past should be left alone, otherwise it lessens the conflict for him in the present. Without sufficient conflict there is no urgency, and urgency is what forces characters to act and readers to turn the page.

The author who shines in this area is Stephen King. Perhaps I haven’t read widely enough, but King is the only author I know who never disappoints when a story revolves around a protagonist in crisis who must resolve his past in order to achieve victory over the bad guys in the present. If you have doubts check out It and Dreamcatcher. The other novelist to impress me in this area is Anita Shreve. Her parallel stories in The Weight of Water were equally riveting. I didn’t want either of them to end. I can’t say the same for The Bone Garden.

The present story is told from the point of view of Julia Hamill—a newly single woman who discovers the remains of a murder victim that dates back to the 1830’s in her garden. Straight away, I have to say I like Julia. She is in a bad way after her divorce, but underneath the sadness rises a pluckiness that makes me rally behind her. Even though she is only battling a boulder in the opening pages, Gerritsen show us there is serious emotional damage to overcome.

All morning she had been digging like a woman possessed, and beneath her leather gloves blisters were peeled open. 

I’m in. I want to learn more about Julia, find out how she ended up in this emotional pickle and see her do battle against the demons that bar her from happiness. Julia’s ex-husband drops by in the fourth of nine present-day chapters. We are shown that he’s a jerk, but Julia deals with him without repercussions. Whatever happened in her marriage has no weight when it comes to this unsolved murder, so why does she care about the mystery of the skeleton? Her desire or curiosity into the history of her house isn’t strong enough to propel the story. Fortunately the Rose Connolly-Norris Marshall story had enough going for it that I was willing to give Julia more time to reveal her need to solve the murder mystery.

Eventually, like Julia, I learned that the letters she sorts through—with a descendant of the prior owner of her house—written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. are historical documents. Searching  for historical evidence has driven many stories like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Robert Harris’s Archangel. But the protagonists in these stories have careers that deal with history. Their passion to uncover the truth or validate information is need enough for their deeper and deeper involvement in the mystery, or thrill factor of the story that also puts the protagonists lives at risk. This is not the case in The Bone Garden. I found the emotional connection between Julia Hamill and Rose Connolly too thin to warrant the present-day storyline. Gerritsen’s justification pays off in the end, but I can’t help wondering why the Rose and Norris storyline wasn’t enough? If they can carry 75% of the novel why not 100%?

Perhaps I’m over critical because I’m searching for all the holes in my WIP at the moment. And I have to say, the thinness of Julia’s story did not prevent me from enjoying Gerritsen’s novel. My analysis is based on where I am as a writer and person. The more I read and the more I write, the more I understand this to be true. So I encourage every writer and booklover to draw your own conclusions and when and if our lives intersect we can enjoy a healthy discussion of The Bone Garden