The more I think back on Louise Welsh’s latest novel, Naming the Bones, which I finished just over two weeks ago, the more quietly impressed I am by it. And if that seems like damning with faint praise, nothing could be further from the truth. While the novel has a narrative arc that brings its protagonist on a quest from Glasgow and Edinburgh up to the wild and windswept island of Lismore, against a backdrop of the occult, infanticide, drugs and voyeurism, the story itself is told confidently, quietly, and above all else without bluster.
The story revolves around a luckless and love-lorn academic, Murray Watson, who, with his academic research, is trying to reclaim the reputation of dead Scottish poet Archie Lunan. Lunan – splendidly made-up by Welsh, who avoids making the mistake of inventing his poetry, which alwasy remains off-stage – died young in an accident/suicide having taken to the seas off Lismore foolhardily in an ill-equipped boat. His death is shrouded in mystery, with suggestions of curses and the occult. Watson is drawn, with shades of the Wickerman, to Lismore to work out whether Luhan’s death was accidental, self-inflicted, or perhaps some type of murder.
Welsh’s writing is often bracketed between the Scylla and Charabdis genres of gothic and crime fiction, and coupled with a dramatic cover I feared for the worst picking the book up. The difference between genre fiction and literary fiction, though, is down to narrative choices in terms of both plot and language, and here Welsh shows her class. Like the very best crime and gothic writers – those who get awarded the merit of being described simply as ‘writers’ – the blood,guts, and horror are not her principle interests (though they’re not absent – far from it). Instead they are used as lenses through which to view the world, bringing different elements into focus.
And what is so great about the book is that, after re-reading it, I’m still not sure what it’s about – from the enigmatic title through to the closing scenes, there’s an interesting and wide meditation going on here about the nature of art and creativity, about parenthood and responsibility, about the constructs of masculinity and femininity, all wrapped up in an easy-to-read format that is deceptively simple.