Sunday, 19 November 2006

What Happen Then Mr Bones?, Charlotte Randall, 2004

WHAT HAPPEN THEN, MR BONES? Charlotte Randall, Penguin, Auckland, New Zealand, 2004, 220 pages, paperback, NZ$28. ISBN 0-14-301917-1

Backwards to the beginning

Charlotte Randall’s amazing novel, The Curative, created a remarkable link between a Bedlam patient and early New Zealand. What Happen Then, Mr Bones? takes a modern New Zealand family and plunges fearlessly backwards in time to conclude (or begin) with awe-inspiring confidence in the mid-17th Century.

The title deserves a little explanation. “What happen then, Mr Bones?” is a question asked in John Berryman’s poem Dream Song No. 26. The reply is, “I had a most marvellous piece of luck. I died.” Death is one of the uniting themes in this novel. Without giving too much away, family history sometimes repeats itself in the ten generations of Montagues and Halifaxes that populate this story. While the character’s lives are vigorous, their endings (or, with the unique narrative direction of this novel, perhaps we should refer to their beginnings) are sometimes ridiculous.
Charlotte Randall’s shrewd knowledge of the history of medicine means that many of these deaths involve medical misadventure and quixotic quackery.

We first meet poor Joe Montague Halifax, when he commits suicide in Petone, unaware that his malignant tumour is actually a “mix-up in the test results.” Among Joe’s ancestors are several pioneers of the dream settlement of Britannia, which slumped into the more prosaic Petone, as well as a sequence of woeful but unexpectedly interesting Englishmen, whose genetic inheritance descends (or rises) from a mysterious woman, who claims to have escaped death. This is Valentina Montague, whose account of her experiences is passed down to (and usually ignored by) her descendants. Thus readers are tantalised with intriguing hints and muddled memories, as they read backwards in time towards Valentina’s interrupted apotheosis.

Intriguing characters abound. Some perfect miniatures pop up, dominate a few pages and then vanish beneath the tide of time. Josiah even meets a suspiciously familiar former Bedlam inmate on the voyage out to Petone. The reader, floating easily against the current of time, usually knows more than the characters, although the truth is always a little ambiguous, a little harder to discern. “Indeed, if the truth be known, which it always will be in time…” warns the all-seeing narrator, even as the reader is again distracted by brilliant wordplay. As in The Curative, we are constantly aware that the future (or in this case the past) has another trick up its sleeve.

Charlotte Randall must be praised for her magnificent fertility of invention, as well as her superb phrasing. One character rejects plastic surgery, “Who wants to look like a cadaver that’s been ironed?” As the novel speeds backwards to the beginning, through premature burials, plague-pits and pest-coaches, a constant theme emerges. “Death always catches us unprepared.”

Trevor Agnew (2004)

This review was first published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on August 7th 2004.

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