Review: The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross
Winner of the Jhalak Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour Prize, The Bone Readers is the first in a four-series collection of novels from Grenada-born writer Jacob Ross, who currently lives in the UK. In an interview with the University of Leicester’s Grassroots Writers’ Gallery, Ross described himself as an ‘Anglo-Caribbean writer - a way of acknowledging both my unavoidably visceral connection to the Caribbean, its people and its history and the incalculable depth of gratitude I owe to English Literature in terms of my development as a writer’. And without doubt, we as readers owe Ross a debt of gratitude for writing the excellent The Bone Readers. As reported by Media Diversified, Ross’s prizewinning book has been described as ‘by turns thrilling, visceral and meditative, and always cinematic’ by judge Musa Okwonga and writer and Jhalak Prize chair Sunny Singh has said it is a ‘breath-taking, thought-provoking and…brilliant read.’
Published by Peepal Tree Press, ‘the home of the best in Caribbean and Black British Writing’, The Bone Readers is an exciting and hugely enjoyable read, full of twists and turns, memorable characters and beautifully poetic narration. The novel perhaps fits best under the genre of Caribbean crime noir as protagonist Michael Digson, known as ‘Digger’ is recruited into San Andrews CID on his home island of Camaho. Quick thinking and athletic, Digger has kept a quiet life, shunning the limelight despite his intelligence and sporting achievements. Upon losing his job working in the tourist area of Camaho, Digger stumbles upon a gang-fight – a young man is killed and although wholly innocent, Digger is coerced by DS Chilman to join the plain clothes squad of the CID in order to avoid being connected with the crime.
Chilman’s job offer is not unsurprising given that Digger is the illegitimate son of the island police commissioner; and when Chilman also offers Digger the opportunity to do some private sleuthing into the death of his mother years before, he concedes to take the opportunity. Not only concerned with the death of his mother, Digger soon finds himself embroiled in uncovering the mystery behind the mysterious disappearance of a young man called Nathan, which soon leads him onto probing a ring of deaths on the island.
The novel is further developed when, during his time at the CID, Digger undertakes training in Britain and makes the important discovery of his talent as a ‘bone reader’:
My gift was reading bones. It was a talent I almost did not discover. During my year abroad, I could never make sense of the bodies of the victims they laid out under strip lights on those long stainless steel tables... One Friday evening a fuse blew somewhere in the building and the weak emergency lights came on. One of the students pulled out an LED torch and I happened to glance over his shoulder. Suddenly that single, frigid beam was like a connection to my brain [...] ‘Bones have their own language... they say a lot about the person who owned them.’
Accordingly, when he returns to Camaho, Digger utilises his talent and together with the forthright and determined Miss Stanislaus, the two form an enviable police team at turns reading people’s emotions as well as their bones in an attempt to uncover who, how and why they were killed.
In his writing of The Bone Readers, Ross achieves a balance between the mysterious and dark elements of Camaho life with lyrical and beautiful depictions of emotions, making Digger such a memorable protagonist. For example, reflecting on his search for this mother, he utters these poignant words:
To free myself of my mother, I too had to kill her – commit a kind of matricide. But how do you kill an absence? How do you rid yourself of something you knew you loved and never had enough of? How do you empty yourself of all that?
These evocative moments of emotional clarity are one of the most unique aspects of The Bone Readers. So many crime novels are populated by cold two-dimensional characters with little motivation or a generic ‘good cop, bad cop’ partners; but with Digger, we get a fully fleshed protagonist full of warmth and feeling. Indeed, particularly because the novel is set in the dark underbelly of Caribbean life, Digger’s thoughtfulness and reflection balance out the misogyny and violence that his adversaries – and even fellow police officers – often indulge in. Further, the inclusion of Miss Stanislaus as Digger’s ally within the police force is an explicitly feminist move by Ross, whose descriptions of Miss Stanislaus imbue her character as an essential equal to Digger:
Miss Stanislaus strolled ahead, her handbag dangling from her bent elbow as if she was on a royal tour and the bushes around us were her subjects.
Indeed, Digger’s appreciation of his beloved grandmother and Ross’s depictions of communities of women looking out for one another and rearing children further establish a pro-women tone to the novel.
The Bone Readers is not without humour too, and we see Digger’s quick-wittedness pay off when, among other examples, he cajoles locals to help him ‘net’ a criminal using the lure of whiskey and tales of lore from the local area. It is this infusion of Caribbean imageries, traditions and mysticism that makes The Bone Readers a must-read novel. Indeed, it is a novel of many different spheres. The contrast between the ‘tourist’ side of the island and the ‘real side’ of the island means that Digger frequently walks in different worlds. Further, the juxtaposition of the criminal world and the rare moments of peace Digger finds with Dessie, a married woman he loves and cares for but is perpetually out of reach adds another layer of emotional intensity to the novel.
As the first book in the Camaho Quartet, The Bone Readers is an engaging, poetic and twist-filled Caribbean crime-noir novel that infuses the unique personalities and sensibilities of Caribbean life into the crime genre. Indeed, the inclusion of a Caribbean vernacular, with Ross writing his characters’ speech as they would literally speak it, as opposed to ignoring native turns of phrase and colloquialisms is a clever decision that adds to the distinctly Caribbean feel of the novel.
Jacob Ross is a masterful narrator and Digger a protagonist who you want to follow throughout crime-solving and in his attempts to unravel his own personal history. His humour, warmth and his skill as a bone reader and detective produces a fascinating and exhilarating read, elevating The Bone Readers from a simple crime novel to a well woven, multi-layered book which is hugely apt for sequels.