GUEST WRITER WILLIAM BAIRD RECOMMENDS WAKE THE BONES BY ELIZABETH KILCOYNE
“At nineteen years old, Laurel was only a few years younger than her mother had been when she died. She’d inherited her mother Anna’s ash-blond hair, and the weight of the town’s judgement. But even when she was a child, Laurel’s ironweed resolve was strong. She could handle schoolyard whispers and the sometimes sympathetic, sometimes disgusted grocery-store gazes. She even learned to live with the one irritating nickname that spread across Dry Valley like the sickly-sweet scent of graded tobacco off to market in the fall. The devil’s daughter.”
Meet Laurel Early, protagonist of Elizabeth Kilcoyne’s Wake The Bones. Amateur taxidermist, tobacco farmer, village outcast, and a young witch in the making, Laurel returns home to rural Kentucky to find an unwelcome guest. The landscape and the bones buried beneath it have come alive, twisted into a macabre parody intent on devouring her and everything she holds dear. It is up to Laurel, with the support of her friends, to find within themselves the strength to fight off a malign creature of the underworld and, in the process, find their own paths as they come of age.
Seamlessly mixing Gothic horror with fantasy, complete with many of the usual fixings – death and decay, darkness and gloom, magic and a supernatural threat – Wake The Bones nevertheless carves out its own niche by superimposing these Gothic elements on the warm, fertile, sunny hills of rural Kentucky. The result is a case study in effective setting- and world-building. Everything from the turns of phrase (which one cannot help but read with a Southern drawl), to the almanac-like description of farm ritual and routine, and to each polite greeting followed by gossip and rumour, Kilcoyne creates a sliding door into a place that is unmistakably Kentuckian, proudly rural, and distinctly unwelcoming.
This setting gives Kilcoyne the room to explore themes in the downtime between nightmares and witchcraft, including sexuality and gender, finding one’s path and purpose in an uncertain world, grief and loss, classism and the divide between urban and rural life. Most interestingly, the setting brings to mind questions about where the evil in the story really lies: is it in the supernatural entity attempting to swallow up Laurel’s home, or in the common bigotry of the human world?
Overall, Wake the Bones certainly has a clear target audience to whom I would recommend the book. If one has a morbid curiosity with the grim and gothic, and wishes to embark on a weird, dreamlike story full of vivid and often dark detail and emotion, then I recommend this book wholeheartedly. With that said, I caution any potential reader of Kilcoyne to take her trigger warning seriously. While skillfully done, the novel deals with mature subject matter.