OLD BONES Bill Nagelkerke, Scholastic, 219 pages, paperback $16.99.
Old Bones is a completely different and very impressive fantasy novel, set in Christchurch. It uses a skilful double narrative to bring together a present day boy, Jamie Clarke, reluctantly moving to a riverside suburb and Charlie Patterson, a seventeen year old farm boy who drowned in the Avon eighty years ago. Their meeting place is the former farm-house, Cloverly, where Charlie’s spirit settles in God’s Eye, the witch’s-hat tower above his old bedroom which later becomes Jamie’s room.
Jamie hates rivers, having seen the family farm destroyed by three consecutive floods. He also resents his father’s new (and pregnant) partner Sue. Even though he draws up a huge list of grievances, Jamie is actually an agreeable and positive boy and he soon becomes intrigued by Cloverly’s unusual history and by Marion, an old lady who lives next door. He even finds himself persuaded by young Ros to come rowing on the river with her.
Charlie’s spirit, meanwhile, has been active and the reader gradually realises that this is a love story rather than a ghost story. Jamie and Ros find themselves recruited to help Charlie in a way neither of them had expected, making an exciting boat trip during a dangerous storm. “Water raced from the tunnel mouths. It would meet the boat head on and swing it round in a vortex. They’d overturn. Be swallowed by the water. Drown.” The river, seen both as a threat and as a source of life, is a recurring theme in this story. The ending skilfully allows readers to draw their own conclusions and assemble their own version of events.
Already well established as a writer for young people, Christchurch author Bill Nagelkerke has excelled himself here.