I’m getting monstrous this week, with the new novel from Christina Henry, Near the Bone. Published by Titan Books, could this frosty chiller be just what you’re looking for? This review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher.
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Mattie lives with her abusive older husband William, beaten for the slightest perceived transgression and confined to their cabin and the area immediately around it by the power of his terrifying rage. But the arrival of a mysterious creature on the mountain – as well as strangers trying to track it down – could change everything, for better or worse.
Despite this setup (and the cover artwork), one thing that might surprise about Near the Bone is just how heavily it leans into the abuse side of the plot. At times, it feels more like an abuse memoir that’s had a monster forcibly inserted into it; the beastie could have been completely absent from this story with only fairly minor rewrites, and things could ultimately have gone much the same. It’s incidental, more of a catalyst than anything else. Its presence isn’t insinuated subtly, to make you doubt its existence – because it’s definitely there, make no mistake – but it also doesn’t receive much in the way of explanation. It seems to be there to do some gory things then just fade into the shadows again, which is entertaining enough but ultimately a little unfulfilling.
The real monster, perhaps not surprisingly then, is the one in the cabin with Mattie. He’s certainly got the bestial side of things nailed down; William is so readily enraged that for much of the time we see him, he’s either threatening or assaulting Mattie. The slightest provocation will send him incandescent, with violence sure to follow. It does feel like there’s a slight lack of nuance to his character as a result of this, with his fervent religious mannerisms something of an easy shortcut when it comes to his characterisation. His constant anger and abuse – both physical and sexual – does help establish him as a particularly hateful character, however, and it’s clear to see why Mattie lives in such fear of him.
Mattie, in contrast to William, feels much more fleshed out as a character. She frets constantly about the right thing to do, worrying that a single toe out of line will see her beaten black and blue, knowing that there’s no way out of her horrible situation and terrified that even if there was, she wouldn’t dare take it. William has got into her head so thoroughly that she has lost all sense of who she is, and her struggle to regain any kind of agency is the main focus of the narrative. It’s consequently very easy to root for her, and she’s a sympathetic character with well-established motivation and a believable personality.
The arrival of strangers on the mountain serves to shed more light on William and Mattie’s situation, as well as adding some much-needed extra characters into the mix, all of whom are distinct from one another and feel very real. As she interacts with them, Mattie begins to make more sense of her situation and her past, remembering crucial details as she fills in the blanks of her life. At times, this is deeply affecting, such as when a taste of a sweet treat triggers a wave of memories and emotions. On occasion though, Mattie’s recollections feel awfully convenient, occurring at just the right time to be relevant and coming across as slightly clumsily implemented. This is particularly the case later on as revelations and recollections practically jostle for position, with some of them stumbling rather inelegantly.
Thankfully, there are enough thrills and spills to sustain Near the Bone towards its entertainingly hectic ending. Explanations might be disappointingly thin on the ground, but the drip feed of tension in the earlier part of the novel lays the groundwork for a second half where the pace rattles along nicely – even if some of the nuts and bolts have come a little loose by the finale.
Near the Bone is published by Titan Books, and is out now. You can order your own copy through this affiliate link.