Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

June 18, 2013

AWWC 2013 Review – River of Bones by Jodi Cleghorn

This is a review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. It’s my sixth for the year, which means that I am probably on the verge of hitting my goal of 10 books read and six reviewed. But I’m going to keep reviewing anyway.

I understand Jodi Cleghorn’s River of Bones was originally written as a novella named Elyora. I like the evocative sound of Elyora, the name of the haunted country town in which the story is set, better than the generic spooky title the story has ended up with, but that’s my last major complaint. And anyway it’s not as if River of Bones is misleading in any way.

River of Bones is the story of a band falling apart on the verge of breaking in. At least, that’s what’s happening when their tour van breaks down in a sleepy Australian country town that appears to be literally stuck in the past. As they become acquainted with a handful of locals, some of them friendlier than others, they begin to realise that Elyora is a very nasty place to get lost in.

The setup to this novel is indistinguishable from any number of gore-filled slasher flicks, in which pretty young people encounter outback/backwoods/hillbilly chainsaw/cultist/cannibal crazies and are grotesquely murdered. Cleghorn does something more interesting with the trope, though, overlaying her bloodbath with gothic imagery, restless ghosts, secret government experiments, Australian xenophobia and a passionate if disturbing romance. With so many ingredients, River could have been a cluttered mess, but Cleghorn pulls it off (although I admit I needed a second readthrough to figure out how the government experiment part fitted in).

Cleghorn has a great eye for the small details that bring her 1970’s-era Elyora to life. River is as gloomy and atmospheric as you’d hope in a gothic novel, the character dialogue is sharp and the horror scenes are memorably gruesome. There were plenty of effective horror moments, though as a parent I think the worst was one character’s alarming indifference to child safety. Overall River of Bones is what I look for in horror – inventive, emotional and gruesome.

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