The 17th book I’ve finished for the 2010 Global Reading Challenge completes the Australasian leg of my virtual tour, taking place on the island of New Guinea.
When Stella Warwick hears that her husband David, an anthropologist working on New Guinea to protect the indigenous people from exploitation while she cares for her invalid father in Australia, has committed suicide she is disbelieving and travels there to find out the truth. She has been told that he committed suicide due to worry over his mounting debts soon after returning from a trip deep into the jungle but Stella wants to know more and keeps asking questions of her husband’s former colleagues, the people who travelled with him and the boys who do menial work for the Australians. In the end she believes the only way to find the answers will be to recreate his final journey into the jungle.
Beat Not The Bones has an excellent sense of its setting both in terms of its physical geography – the heat, humidity, isolation and wild jungle are depicted so well I swear I started to feel sweaty despite reading the book on cold winter days – and its social status as a colonial outpost of Australian government and business interests. As cringe-making as it might be now the reality is that in the 1950’s behaviour towards the country and its people by Australian interests was undoubtedly as patronising as is described in the book. Even the people who are portrayed as enlightened treat the Papuans as little more than ‘the white man’s burden’. Sometimes when I read historical fiction that takes place in times or places where sensibilities are very different from current ones I get the sense that things are altered just a little (even unintentionally) to fit in more comfortably with modern ideas, usually by the insertion of at least one incredibly forward-thinking individual and/or the careful omission of the least palatable facts. For better or worse this contemporary story has none of that ‘glossing over the nasty bits’ feel.
The characters were a less successful aspect of the book for me. Stella for example is a woman so sheltered from life and so utterly dependent upon men (her father, husband and random strangers as long as they are men) that she is barely functional as an independent human being. Perhaps she is a realistic depiction of a woman of her time (though my mother, being roughly the same age, would vehemently disagree) but regardless of that I found it very difficult to care what happened to her. Even when she started developing a smidgen of independent thought towards the end I found I’d lost interest in what happened to her. Although they too were probably credible portrayals none of the other characters generated much in the way of my empathy, with the possible exception of Stella’s travelling companion in the jungle who does seem to suffer from the consequences of his own prior actions and a heat-induced madness (I’m more sympathetic to the latter).
While I found the overall story mildly interesting I must say I wasn’t completely gripped I put the book down for several days a couple of times and was never drawn back to it in any hurry. The main reason for this was the almost gothic, certainly melodramatic, style of writing that did have me rolling my eyes a few times. The ending though was remarkably strong and tackled the thorny issue of there being consequences for the evil that one does during one’s life. Overall I’d recommend the book, especially if you enjoy visiting your tropical locations virtually rather than in person or could do with being reminded that no matter how screwy our current world is we have made some fairly amazing social advances in 60 years.
Beat Not the Bones has also been reviewed recently at Kittling: Books
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3.5/5
Publisher Soho Press [this edition 1995, originally 1952]
Length 219 pages
Source My collection