A young police officer searches for his missing mother in a crime thriller from a highly original writer, Bernardine Evaristo writes in this review for London’s Guardian.
When the Jamaican writer Marlon James won the Man Booker prize last year with A Brief History of Seven Killings he became internationally famous, yet his earlier two novels had marked him out as a writer of great originality and talent.
Jacob Ross is another writer who deserves a much wider audience. He has been a British citizen since the 80s but was originally from Grenada, and his first two books of short stories powerfully evoked Grenadian society. In Song for Simone he explored childhood. In A Way to Catch the Dust he dug deep into the psyches of a cross-section of Grenadians, most noticeably in “Rum an Coke”, a story about a mother who injects heroin into the neck of her son’s sleeping drug dealer. In 2008 he published his first novel, Pynter Bender, about a blind boy raised by women on a pre-independence Caribbean island still struggling with the legacy of slavery.
Ross’s new novel, the first of a trilogy, marks a departure into crime thrillers. Michael “Digger” Digson is barely out of school and unable to afford the fees for university. Hanging over him is his mother’s unexplained disappearance, during a demonstration against the rape of a woman, when he was a child. The rapist, the son of an influential politician, was whisked off the island. Digger’s father is also a powerful man, the police commissioner. His mother worked for him as a maid and Digger is known as his “outside child” – a child who turned up at the gates of his father’s big house to be fed some coins through the railings. The novel opens with a crime that leads to Digger’s reluctant recruitment into the police force by DC Chilman, a drunkard who is unscrupulously plucking a new, young squad off the streets. Digger has two extraordinary skills that make him stand out: an ability to recognise voices, and the skill of reading human bones – but only in the dark, under LED lights.
As a plainclothes officer in this rogue police force, Digger has his work cut out for him. It’s his job to pursue cases of missing persons; these cases lead him into the island’s sordid underbelly. There’s Nathan, possibly gay, who left his mother’s house one day and never returned. At the isolated Fire Baptist Church the pastor has complete control over subdued women trapped in a compound patrolled by threatening “watchmen” dangling knotted ropes. A girl disappears in a remote Indian community where intergenerational incest is the norm and a father would rather kill his daughter than see her in a relationship with a “blackfella”. Communities and individuals are full of secrets, silences and lies, and often prove impenetrable. Digger decides to investigate his mother’s disappearance, in spite of being warned away. As the novel progresses and he unpicks the complex web of relationships that spreads beneath the surface of this society, he discovers painful truths and some shocking surprises.
Ross’s characters are always powerfully delineated through brilliant visual descriptions, dialogue that trips off the tongue, and keenly observed behaviour. He excels at creating empathetic female characters. Women hold communities together; they raise the children alone, they turn to each other for support, they are let down by the men. When Miss Stanislaus joins the police force, we encounter a prettily dressed, sweetly smiling, ballbusting heroine who crushes a bullying male colleague with a smart putdown – the novel is not without many moments of humour.
But grief and loss are the strongest seams running through this book – the grief of those whose loved ones meet a premature death, the loss of those whose lives were cut unnecessarily short. The Bone Readers is a page-turner, but its insights and language are equally testament to a literary novel of impressive depth and acuity.
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