Georgina Bruce’s debut novella is deliciously evocative and self-consciously Gothic, steeped in dark and surreal imagery. Sometimes the narrative is disorienting, as our protagonist Anna, who is mentally ill, repeatedly questions reality and her sanity, as though caught in the reflection between two mirrors. Other times, the story reads like a prose poem, with its own dreamy internal logic. As someone who is utterly fascinated by dark faery tales and Gothic fiction, I was pretty keen to read Honeybones, finished it in a single sitting, and immediately reread it after the revelatory conclusion.
From the very first page, with its lyrical opening lines, it is clear that this is a tale that revels in spooky atmospherics, perhaps at the cost of other things. The plot is thin and misty. Our unreliable narrator, Anna, is bullied in school, abandoned by her mother Sarah, darkly enchanted by Tom, her artistic stepfather, who has murky secrets, and tormented by Rose, his previous wife. Befuddled, Anna wanders about a strange house with several empty rooms, chancing upon eerie plastic dolls that dole out rhymes, and is chased by monstrous visions, even as she slowly realizes that Tom isn’t the man that she thought him to be. At its heart, this is a tale about a woman’s loss and reclamation of power, of rewriting narratives in one’s own voice, of survival in a world filled with hate and vile misogyny.
In many ways, the story feels like a love letter to the Gothic and horror genres that Bruce, with her acclaimed short stories, is clearly a master of. Anna’s obsession with and hatred for Rose reminded me of the nameless narrator in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, whose jealousy for the novel’s titular character subsumes her own personality and desires, as she exists only to safeguard the love of her distant husband. In Honeybones, the claustrophobia of the strange house and the unreliability of the narrator has a Shirley Jacksonesque edge to it (think We Have Always Lived In The Castle but without Merricat’s confidence). The narrative style, with its sharp focus on perplexity that mirrors Anna’s own disjointed and delirious mental state, is also reminiscent of Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, where the language deliberately obscures the reader’s attempt to process events in a linear and causal manner. Bruce’s novella also eschews chapter divisions, making it difficult to pinpoint where the tale truly begins or ends, as Anna appears to revisit the same moments and the way she perceives “time” is circular and bewildering. It leaves the reader to wonder, when indeed does the funeral end and the play of the cully king begin?
However, by the end of the book, I felt rather conflicted. On one hand, I was captivated by Bruce’s masterful prose, with the way she layers one ghostly image over the other, and the refrain of the “dreemy people” that functions like a leitmotif, building up to a nightmarish spectacle towards the end where the cully king is seemingly dethroned. Take for instance, these lines from the very first page:
The day of the funeral seemed to start at the end, when the front door slammed, and the girls in the mirrors slipped away like silverfish, out of sight through doors and windows and around corners, into the house inside the house. It was a house of mirrors, and it was entangled with its selves, a pattern looping inwards, upstairs and through doorways and round corners, round and round and up and down. That day the houses had locked together. The real house and the house of mirrors. Fused at the spine. Tangled at the teeth. Knotted at the hair.
On the other hand, even after rereading it, I was left wanting, full of questions. For instance, I was mildly curious about the figure of Thew, who briefly appears as the narrator’s childhood friend, a tender fox spirit and also a lover (a clear counterpart to Tom, the stepfather). But with the way the novella straddles the thin line between imagination and reality, there are no clear answers as to his true identity and the only solace lies in embracing uncertainty.
Of course, one may argue that the confusion, the sense of fragmentation and the lack of closure is deliberate. It is the only way we may come close to understanding the extent of Anna’s trauma and her resultant loosening grip on reality. But it may also paradoxically enough, distance the reader from becoming emotionally invested in the characters, as they feel less like individual people (with their own unique traits) and more like the Gothic stereotypes they are based upon.
This is where the novella’s overreliance on Gothic tropes may have been counterproductive. There’s the traditional sense of mystery and foreboding, family secrets and the hint of incest, the helplessness of the female characters, the presence of an authoritarian father figure, distrust of the outside world, and so on. As a result, Anna becomes less of an individual character with whom one can sympathize and more of a stand-in for the passive Gothic heroine, who struggles to reclaim her agency and in a modern, feminist Angela Carteresque twist, actually sort of succeeds.
That isn’t, of course, a bad thing, but depending on your personal reading tastes, it may affect your overall experience. For instance, if you enjoy atmospheric tales but with tightly-knit plots and engaging characterization, Honeybones may leave you confused, frustrated, maybe even disappointed. Plus, the overlay of ghastly images may seem repetitive after a while, and I wondered if, despite being a novella, the story was maybe too long for what it was trying to do, and perhaps could have worked better had it been shorter.
However, if you like experimental speculative prose that richly reworks relevant issues (such as the debates surrounding the #MeToo conversations) in the Gothic vein, it may be a rewarding exercise. Anna’s initial, precocious crush on Tom and her desire to be validated by his “masculine” love is a narrative of gaslighting, emotional manipulation, and abuse that most readers will find eerily familiar. The effect is compounded by the fact that Tom comes across as a villain from his very first appearance in the way he distinguishes himself from the “other boys” who do not conceal their abusive natures under the garb of eloquence and charisma.
The readers of course, are aware that Anna is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. In a bid to save herself from the creeps and bullies at school, she shuts herself in the house with Tom, who is handsome and brooding and guilt-stricken and oh so problematic (see the trend?). There are plenty of moments when Tom’s mask slips, but while the reader can spot the red flags (especially Tom’s attempts at “grooming” her), the young and naïve Anna cannot, and chooses to make excuses for his erratic behavior to the extent that she turns against the other women who try to warn or help her. Anna’s loss of innocence is thus predicated upon the moment when she realizes that Tom, the romanticized anti-hero, her Prince Charming, is nothing but another rendition of Bluebeard, with his house full of creepy plastic dolls (his former victims?) that stutter the same childish tune over and over. Her illusion breaks when she is finally able to refuse him and his power, when she finally learns to say “no.”
To that end, Honeybones is a careful exploration of how patriarchy manipulates women to be their own worst enemies, tries to sabotage any attempt at forming a sisterhood, and how the most insidious forms of systemic violence and oppression is often cloaked under promises of benevolence and “true love.” It uses enticing and poetic language to paint a deeply unsettling tale that feels starkly contemporary as well as reminds the reader of Gothic fiction’s chief tenets: that true darkness and depravity, lies not in the supernatural or the unexplained, but in man’s own twisted nature, in his capacity to be cruel.
Thus, Honeybones, with the way it grapples with the themes of trauma, abuse, gaslighting and manipulation, may be potentially triggering for some readers. Moreover, its deployment of an unreliable narrator, poetic language, and repetition of certain symbols and images, may not win over lovers of lucid prose and a conventional narrative style. In fact, it reminded me of another experimental work This Is How You Lose The Time War (by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone) which I came across earlier this year, that reads like the lovechild of speculative poetry and soft science fiction. It is an epistolary novel (that too can be finished in a single sitting) with breathlessly beautiful prose which, incredible in its own light, may not sit well with those who prefer more mainstream and generic modes of storytelling. Honeybones too is similarly experimental and will probably work best with a niche readership that enjoys the Gothic flavor à la Crimson Peak, laced with a stream of consciousness narrative, a healthy sense of ambiguity, and dreamy evocative poetry.