Apr 14, 2015

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Bone Gap by Laura RubyBone Gap by Laura Ruby

Bone Gap is about two brothers, Finn and Sean O’Sullivan, who live in the small Midwestern town that gives the novel its title. Finn and Sean live alone: their father died when they were young, and their mother left Bone Gap a few years after, before Finn had finished high school. Sean, who had plans to go to medical school, has put them on hold to look after his little brother. When the novel stars, Sean and Finn are trying to cope with another loss: Roza, a girl who one day appeared mysteriously in their barn, has disappeared just as mysteriously. But Finn knows what happened to Roza — he saw a man drag her into a car the day she vanished. However, his inability to describe the man in detail, combined with Sean’s predisposition to assume he’s been left again, means that not even his own brother will believe him.

Bone Gap is also about Roza: there are chapters from her point of view, and readers find out fairly early on what happened to her and what she’s up against. There are also flashbacks to Roza’s life up until the day when she turns up in the O’Sullivan’s barn. Additionally, we get to know Petey, a girl Finn is falling in love with and whose connection with bees may or may not be magical; we’re introduced to a horse that most definitely is magical; and we learn all about the gaps people slip into, and the silences that shroud the town.

When I picked up Bone Gap, I knew a few things: that it was a feminist novel, that it played with fairy tale conventions, and that some people described it as magic realism. I didn’t know much about the actual details of the plot, and though I can see how getting into what happens to Roza may be spoilery, I can’t really say much about why Bone Gap resonated with me and why I found it so hard to read at times without talking about it. So consider this a spoilers warning.

Roza’s story is heartbreaking largely because it’s so common. As we read about her past, we learn about instances of harassment that will be familiar to the overwhelming majority of women. As a teenager, Roza quickly learned that a lot of men saw her as a thing to be owned and touched at will, not as a person with a mind of her own. This culminates when she goes to America as an exchange student and meets a man — a professor, someone in a position of authority she was inclined to trust — who abducts her and vows to “make her love him.”

What follows is absolutely horrifying, and not because any of it is described graphically (I highly recommend this guest post by Laura Ruby, by the way, about why she didn’t feel the need to be more explicit, and about how we as a culture feel entitled to the details of survivors’ stories). The focus is on the psychological impact these experiences have on Roza; on what it feels like to live through them. The man who claims to want Roza doesn’t really want Roza-the-human-being: there’s a chilling moment where he says, “You’re the most beautiful creature I have ever seen”. Bone Gap does an excellent job of capturing how being on the receiving end of this kind of attention is the ultimate objectification. It robs you of your humanity, because whatever it is that such men want is so incidental to who you are: it’s about looks, or some sort of projection you just happen to be a vessel for, or the accident of being in the same room as them at the wrong time, or having your common politeness misconstructed as availability. And the knowledge that whatever it is that they want has so little to do with you can worm its way into your head and make you feel like you’re less than a person, or like your personhood doesn’t matter at all to the world at large.

Bone Gap was too vivid a reminder of experiences I haven’t felt ready to discuss in public, which made it hard to read at times — but this is also what makes it an amazing novel. It tackles sexism and objectification and rape culture head on, and it illuminates the continuity of abuse. Major incidents like Roza’s abduction and everyday episodes of harassment like the ones a younger Roza or Petey experience exist as part of a continuum, of a cycle where the acceptability of the latter makes the former all the more likely. There are layers and layers of assumptions and normalised cultural mores that make it possible for a man to believe that he can “make” Roza love him.

Also, I like that Bone Gap presents an alternative model of masculinity in Finn and Sean. The novel does what a lot of my favourite fiction does, which is analyse how stereotypical notions of what it means to be a man or a woman can get in the way of real intimacy. A traditional model of hypermasculinity that builds itself on rejecting everything tainted by associated with femininity makes it very difficult for heterosexual men to see women as people, let alone to form a balanced partnership. When Roza meets Sean, she feels (to quote from the guest post I linked to above) “the sheer terror” of “finally [stumbling] into a person she might be able to trust.” The terror goes both ways, though, because the vulnerability of intimacy also goes both ways. There’s a lovely scene where Roza notices that Sean is shaking too, as if being near her meant just as much to him as it does to her. The fact that Sean doesn’t feel the need to disguise this is what makes it possible for the two to approach each other as equals — as two human beings who have been hurt and are desperately afraid, but who are willing to take the risk of getting close to each other.

I need to talk about Petey and Finn too, because I loved them just as much — everything from their late-night talks by a bonfire to their hesitation to the lovely oral sex scene with female pleasure at its centre. Also, Finn is not neurotypical: he has prosopagnosia, which makes it difficult for him to recognise human faces. This is not something he realises about himself until Petey pieces the clues together and points it out. This is what happens when she does:
“You’re not a circus clown.”
“Not, not a clown. But I’m hideous. Everyone thinks so.”
“I don’t think so,” Finn said, angry now. He had some sort of crazy disease and Petey was talking about being ugly after he’d been coming for her every night, because he couldn’t stand to be away from her, and she was throwing papers and books at him as if it proved something about her, and not about him.
“It’s true,” she said. “I look like a giant bee. And that’s why you can tell it’s me. And that’s why you’re here.” She shrugged, but the tears came again, wet tracks down her cheeks.
“That’s not why,” she said.
She said nothing.
He said, “I love you.”
She shook her head. “You can see me, that’s all.”
But wasn’t that love? Seeing what no one else could?
I loved Petey, but she’s human and fallible and she screws up: this is a perfect example of how fear can make you self-centred. Finn is right, of course. She makes her discovery about her, because she’s so desperately afraid it means Finn doesn’t love her after all. So she hurts him to preemptively avoid getting hurt, but fortunately the two eventually manage to work it out.

I also really liked the fact that there are complicated family relationships at the heart of Bone Gap: Sean and Finn find their way back to each other after fear and lonely had isolated them, and much to my joy and relief the novel never really scapegoats their mother. Lastly, have I mentioned the writing? Laura Ruby is amazing, and I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t end up among my favourite reads of the year.

They read it too: By Singing Light, Random Musings of a Bilbiophile, The Book Smugglers, Lady Business, you?


  1. This is the kind of book I probably wouldn't pick up just from glancing at it or reading the flyleaf. But you've made it sound so honest and good while exploring painful truths that I'm going to add it to my list.

    1. I hope you enjoy it. It's a beautiful novel.

  2. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmbut I am so, so, so tired of stories about sexual assault, Ana. Is it worth it still anyway? I just, I have, I'm -- it's so many stories so many times forever.

    1. That's very different from how I feel, but of course I can only speak for myself. I understand exhaustion, and I don't think there's one true way to deal with the horrors living in a patriarchal world constantly throws at us. If someone gets to a point where they go, "I can't engage with these stories anymore", they have my sympathy and support and respect.

      This post mostly expresses how I personally feel. I've 100% had it with icky exploitative grimdark descriptions of rape, but I do find smart, sensitive, feminist explorations of what it feels like to be harassed or assaulted immensely useful. These stories help me. There are many of them, but there are also so, so many real life instances of it happening to people, so many different ways it fucks up your life, so many individuals trying to carry on afterwards, so many unique ways to cope, or not cope, or try again until you find something that (temporarily) works. Not everyone feels this way, but for some of us, stories really, really help. And I guess that as long as it's still happening all around us all the time, I'm unlikely to feel like we're done dealing with it in fiction or have said everything there is to say about the process of surviving.

      Like I said, though, this is me. It's 100% a personal decision and there's no one true path. We all respond to things differently, and I'm glad we have the option to do what's best for us.

    2. Yeah -- we've talked about this before, and I know we differ. I certainly am glad that smart, sensitive, feminist depictions of rape exist, and I'm excited that people are writing them. I just find them very, very difficult to read. Maybe even more difficult than the exploitative ones, because the sensitive ones really ask you to enter into that experience, and that's rough for me.

    3. And that's a perfectly valid decision *hugs*


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