Titan Books | 2018 (1 May) | 473p | Review copy | Buy the book
When County Archaeologist Sage Westfield is called in to excavate a well discovered during a house expansion on the Isle of Wight, it’s a shock to her and to her small team when the bones of a woman and a tiny baby are discovered deep within the well. Marks on the bones tell of violent deaths while strange carvings on the stones inside the well hint at something else just as sinister. Soon the whole village of Banstock becomes caught up in the mystery of the bones in the well. It’s time for the past to be laid to rest.
But Banstock is a troubled village. The cottage, in the grounds of which lies the well, is believed haunted and the deep unhappiness felt by its current owners appears to reflect a much older sadness. The local vicar is fascinated by the mystery of the bones, a welcome distraction from the hate calls that he’s receiving almost daily. And the interest deepens when records are uncovered relating to the village’s manor house, which once owned the cottage. The household records date from 1580 and they tell a tale that enthralls Sage. But Sage has good reason to feel such care for this poor dead baby and the woman buried with it – she is heavily pregnant and, more than anything else in her life, she knows the obsessive and certain need to keep one’s child safe. But death walks through this historic village.
A Baby’s Bones is an engrossing and moving mystery but what surprised me – in a good way – is that its focus is very much on the people of Tudor and present-day Banstock rather than on a hunt for a murderer. In fact the murder takes a considerable time to take place. Instead we have been drawn into the story of Sage, her complicated feelings for her baby’s father, and her developing connection to the inhabitants of this village which has such a sad history.
Sage is the heart of the novel and I warmed to her very much. There is a growing tension through the book, intensified by our worry for her condition. The baby’s bones are a warning indeed. Scattered throughout the narrative are the extracts from the Tudor period and they tell another story of love, hatred, suspicion and motherhood. There’s such a menace to these sections which highlight the vulnerable position of some women in society and the power that men held over them.
My background is in archaeology and so I did have some thoughts about the novel’s archaeological scenario – human remains in wells aren’t uncommon and such extensive investigation of their historical context is a luxury few archaeologists would be able to enjoy. But this is fiction and very enjoyable fiction at that. Although I think this could have been 100 pages shorter, it was nevertheless compelling and I enjoyed its chill which contrasted well with the novel’s comforting feel – pretty villages, vicars and old houses. I love novels that bring a community to life, exploring its origins and finding a continuity in the stories of its people. A Baby’s Bones is a beautifully written novel, full of atmosphere, sadness and menace as well as love – between mother and daughter, between friends and between mother and child.
I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.