Reviewed by Genevieve Hartman
A twisted and resonant narrative that follows the secrets and horrors of Napoleonville’s Black community through the early to mid-1900s
Made up of personal narratives, letters, news clippings, and biographical excerpts, These Bones centers around the Lyons family and their neighbors’ lives in the Bramble Patch, the Black section of segregated Napoleonville. Part historical fiction, part folk tale, and part horror, These Bones reveals a community that is wracked with grief and ravaged by the insidious Barghest, yet still resilient in the face of this violence.
The book opens with a letter from a Vanderbilt college student to aging Dr. Wanhope Lyons; the student begs Lyons for tales about the Bramble Patch, and the return letter is roundabout, mysterious, and tired. From this launching point, the clock is turned back to 1909, introducing readers to Jessup (later revealed to be Wanhope’s mother), and Barghest, a pimp who runs the most successful bordello in town.
As the narrative is passed around between townsfolk, the relationships and histories emerge in a haze of sorrow. Between the Barghest’s exploitation, the racist white people that employ or sponsor many of the Lyons family’s children, and the threat of natural disaster, the Lyons family, and the whole town, face cruelty and hardship. Through all these events runs the recurring line – at times hopeful and at times a threat–“These bones are gonna rise again.”
Chenault’s tapestry of words is carefully woven, her sentences filled with striking images and careful attention. With an array of characters, Chenault shows off her prowess, poignantly crafting the voices of dozens of townspeople, drawing the reader into the midst of a small town where everyone knows everyone, and most everyone is related, too. These Bones moves constantly between characters, at times offering the wisdom of elders, and at other times, entering the mind of children. Through it all, Chenault displays a potent and intimate look at the Bramble Patch’s best and worst parts.
The price of this rich multitude of voices is the clarity of the plot, which is often difficult to follow, due to the sheer number of people introduced, and the limited time readers are given with each character. There are missing details, and the family trees are hard to trace. The shifting perspectives mimic how small-town life can be: stories are reconstructed from bits of hearsay and intuition, and everyone’s tragedies and secrets are on display for the whole town to see. This story is not quick or easy reading, despite the short length of the book, and it is not meant to be. Chenault has written a story that is arresting and haunting because of its intricacies and its missing pieces.
This book is for lovers of gothic novels, dark literary fiction, and historical drama, but is not for the faint of heart. What Chenault has created in These Bones is a gritty landscape, an unfinished puzzle, and an intoxicating web of people waiting to entangle readers in their complicated histories.
Publisher: Lanternfish Press
Genre: Literary Fiction / Historical Fiction / Gothic
Print Length: 112 pages
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