Charlotte Jay’s novel Beat Not the Bones manages an unusual feat: it is interesting and boring at the same time. It has a lot of ideas, a lot of good things to discuss, but the experience of reading it was dull. Surely you’ve had that experience before? I kept wondering why I wasn’t enjoying myself more; I felt I should have enjoyed it, but I found it too easy to put the book down.
I was relieved to read that Emily found it boring too, and to hear that many of the members of my mystery book group agreed (Hobgoblin’s take on the novel is here). One member wondered if he was reading it under poor circumstances, which might explain why he found it hard to get through, but when others said that they had a similar experience, it seemed clear that it’s a fault of the book and not of the reader.
The book is marketed as a mystery and it won the Edgar Allan Poe award in 1954, but it felt to me like it could just as easily be considered literary fiction as mystery. There is a mysterious death that gets explained by the novel’s end, but the heart of the novel is really in the changes that take place in the main character, Stella, and there is no way for the reader to figure out how the plot will resolve itself — there are no clues to follow and there is no detective. I wondered if I would feel differently about the book if I approached it as literary fiction rather than as mystery — when I pick up a mystery, I expect a fast-moving plot at least, but with other kinds of fiction I’m more tolerant of slowness.
The story is about the death of Stella’s husband which took place in the colonial outpost of Marapai in New Guinea. Stella, who had been living apart from her husband in the time leading up to his death, travels to Marapai to discover what happened to him. People have told her that he committed suicide, but she believes he was murdered. In the novel’s opening chapters we are introduced to a potential suspect, Alfred Jobe, who has discovered gold in the jungle village of Eola. Stella’s husband has blocked his claim to the gold, providing him with a motive for murder. Stella’s quest is initially to find Jobe, but she soon learns that the situation is much more complicated than she originally thought.
The novel’s colonial context is one of the most interesting things about it; there is the inevitable tension between the white colonialists and the Papuans, and it quickly becomes apparent that most if not all of the colonialists are incapable of seeing the Papuans as human beings. Racial inequality is a given; the colonialists are there to bring “civilization” to the natives and the natives are there to gratefully accept it — and to work as servants. The atmosphere is even darker than this description implies, however, as the whites have largely stopped believing in their “mission” and are focused on survival and perhaps on making some money.
All this raises the question of Jay’s own take on the colonial situation and on race relations. I couldn’t help but feel that the book is meant as a critique of racism and colonialism and that the bleakness of the situation is a reflection on what inevitably happens when one group of people tries to control another. As the novel progressed, I was overwhelmed by the ugliness of it all, the horror of what the colonizers were willing to do to maintain their position and to protect themselves from any culpability, and I think Jay meant the reader to feel that way.
On the other hand, I’ve been struggling to figure out exactly what to make of Jay’s portrayal of the Papuans. The book is a little like Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (many thanks to Becky for pointing out this comparison) in the sense that both novels use a colonial setting as the backdrop to the tell the story of a woman’s growth and self-realization, and I can’t help but wonder whether the plight of the natives gets a little lost. Is this another example of a colonial setting functioning mainly as the spur to change in the colonizers?
And yet while Jay largely keeps her focus on the white characters and their struggles and challenges, she does offer a complex and powerful Papuan character in Hitolo, and in a way it makes sense for her to focus on the colonizers rather than to try to get into the minds of the Papuans, which might feel presumptuous and arrogant. And what I think ultimately matters is the sense a reader almost inevitably leaves the novel with that the colonial project is hopelessly corrupt and doomed. The ugliness of it pervades every page.
So with all this interesting stuff going on, I’m sad that the novel wasn’t a more absorbing read. Part of the problem was that the characters weren’t developed enough to be believable — they tended to do strange and unexpected things, and I never found a way to fit all the pieces of each character together. The pace was too slow as well, and it had abrupt and uncomfortable transitions that unfortunately invite a reader to set the book aside.
I am interested, though, in the combination of mystery novel and colonial setting. Can you think of other books that do something similar? Hobgoblin mentioned The Moonstone as a possibility. Any others?