Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Cover of Bone Gap, featuring a photograph of a bee against a beige honeycomb background.
The me of four months ago wasn’t even sort of interested in BONE GAP. In fact, I was actively disinterested in it on account of the title. It put me in mind of the thigh gap, that thing all women are meant to strive for and so few people are genetically capable of achieving, only dialed up to eleven. Don’t just ensure your thighs are discrete entities with at least two inches between ‘em; peel away the flesh and leave nothing but bones. So skinny. So perf.

So gross, more like. That terrible image fixed firmly in mind, I didn’t even check to see what the book was about.

The longer BONE GAP was out in the world, though, the more positive buzz I heard. People loved it. Friends loved it. Maybe it was worth looking into after all.

I tamped down my concerns over the name (which, for the record, still nauseates me) and investigated my options. My library's holds list was long, but Scribd had the audio so I downloaded it and started listening.

And, um, I didn’t like it.

I recognized the beauty of the prose, but the story just wouldn’t click for me. It simultaneously gave me too much and too little. Laura Ruby begins BONE GAP right in the middle, well after the inciting incident has occurred. We know Finn has lost Roza, a girl for whom he harbours deep feelings. We know he lives in Bone Gap, a town where everyone is steeped in everyone else’s business. And from there, we’re expected to piece everything together based on a few spare details.

The weird thing is, this is my favourite sort of setup. Hell, it's why I love fiction. Of course you begin in the middle. Of course you trust the reader to keep up. Nobody wants every element of a story handed to them on a platter. Reading is no fun when you’re unable to discover anything for yourself.

In this case, though, I wanted considerably more than what Ruby gave me. I felt I lacked the narrative tools I needed to make sense of the relationships on the page (or in my ears; same diff). Ruby asked me to know a lot of things I had no way of knowing, without enough incluing1 to help me figure out the shape of the story.

I might well have bailed if so many of my friends weren’t over the moon about BONE GAP, or if I’d been reading it in print. Unsatisfying audiobooks usually get more of a buffer before I ditch ‘em simply because I’m trapped with them. I rarely keep more than one or two audios on my iPod at any given time, and I do much of my listening while I’m bumming around out in the great, wide world without access to wifi. I can’t easily switch to another audiobook if my current listen ain’t doing it for me, so I stick with it longer than I might otherwise have done so.

That’s how it went down with BONE GAP. I kept on listening because I was in the midst of a long-ass walk with nothing better to do.

And you know what? Somewhere around a third of the way in, the book stopped being a chore and began being awesome.

Oh so slowly, everything came into focus. The characters who were initially so opaque made themselves known to me with each telling interaction, each flashback that filled in a maddening gap in the current story. As each answer snapped into place, I came to realize how very much the earlier, confusing, downright offputting portions of the text made me want these revelations. The gaps were frustrating in the moment, yeah, but they built necessary tension.

Not only that, but I couldn’t see how else Ruby could possibly have structured the book. BONE GAP took time to let me in, but it worked. The narrative wove its way around the gaps, pushing the story forward as it revealed not only the plot but also the novel's wider themes. And as soon as this groundwork was in place, Ruby gave me a good, hard shove into the deep end.

The story on the page was not the story I’d thought I was reading. My view of BONE GAP shifted.

All of a sudden, I wanted this. I wanted every last scrap.

Clear perception is as important to these characters as it was to me, and as elusive. Everyone in Bone Gap knows everyone else and assumes they see the truth of their neighbours’ lives, but no one is quite who anyone else expects them to be. There’s the story everyone knows and there’s the story as it actually happened. There’s the person the townspeople see and the person who exists within their own mind. And there’s the path these stories might take, the people these characters may become, if they’re fully seen and allowed to flourish on their own terms.

Likewise, the reader is continually aware of what may happen if each character’s sense of self is perverted to match their public image. Roza, the girl whom Finn worries over, has been kidnapped and forced into a sphere designed by a man who doesn’t truly see her. Much of her story centres on her fight to keep hold of herself when everything about her world is constantly shifting; when she’s forever told she must see things this way or that, no matter how they actually look to her. Even before she’s abducted, she’s continually presented with The Way Things Are For Everyone Else versus The Way Things Are For Her. Every day, she wakes up and fights for the right to be The Way She Really Is instead of The Way Everyone Sees Her.

It’s powerful stuff, especially since BONE GAP is far from a safe, predictable story. With her identity and her viewpoint challenged at every turn, it’s entirely possible Roza will lose herself. Given everything she's been through, it's impossible she won't change at all. The question becomes whether she’ll transform according to someone else’s whim or due to her own actions, in line with her own self-image.

Ruby performs a number of narrative tricks in and around this whole notion of perception versus reality. Perhaps my favourite of them (which, fair warning, I’m about to spoil because I like it so much, and because I don't think it'll hurt you to know it ahead of time) occurs between Finn and Roza. With moments of meeting Finn, the reader knows he cares deeply for Roza and has felt his life fall apart since she was taken. Convention tells us he’s in romantic love with her. Convention is wrong, no matter what the townsfolk may whisper.

In learning how wrong convention was in this particular area, we’re forced to question the many other conventions Ruby toys with throughout the course of the narrative. Perhaps everything we know about this town and these people is merely filtered through our own expectations. Perhaps we need to shut up and listen.

Finn’s own relationship with perception and The Way Things Are For Him versus The Way Things Are For Everyone Else is complicated by his particular disability, which is another thing you may consider a spoiler if you’re especially shy of such details. Finn has minimal trouble recognizing who people are to themselves, but he struggles to perceive physical differences between them because he’s face blind. He can’t recognize people by their facial features and must look at things like the way they stand, or what they’ve done with their hair, or their own unique fashion sense.

Prior to this revelation, Finn assumes his view of the world matches everyone else’s, in this one respect if in no other way. He doesn’t understand why it’s so difficult for his neighbours to parse the sort of clues that tell him so much, or why they place such a hefty emphasis on what the man who took Roza looked like. Once reader and Finn alike realize what’s going on with his face blindess, many other things click into place. The town-wide perception of Finn as a moony, forgetful person; the barrier that’s risen between Finn and his brother, Sean, due to Finn’s inability to describe Roza’s abductor; Finn’s failure to understand his girlfriend, Petey’s, reservations about her supposed ugliness versus Finn’s supposed beauty.

This revelation hit me hard, partly because it fits so well with the novel’s overarching themes and partly because I’m face blind. I’m not completely so, like Finn is, but I have a lot of trouble recognizing people based on their facial features alone. Sometimes acquaintances look completely different to me between one meeting and the next. People who continually change their look throw me off. I can’t always recognize someone from a photograph because they’re not moving in their own particular way, or they’ve twisted their head at an unfamiliar angle. Groups of people who dress and do their hair in similar ways blend together for me. I can’t watch TV without IMDB to hand because I’m generally aware I’ve seen an actor before, but I can’t place them when they’re all decked out for a different role and it drives me crazy. I saw SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE five times before I realized Lord Wessex was played by Colin Firth.

Prior to BONE GAP, I'd never seen a face blind person represented in a book. Hell, I didn’t even know there was a proper term for it. It’s just my life, much as it’s just Finn’s life until Petey shows him not everyone sees the world like he does.

The novel’s fantastical elements make themselves known in as organic a manner as the shifts in perception. Bone Gap is an odd place; the sort of town where corn talks and ghosts make free with peoples’ pantries, and nobody considers any of it particularly noteworthy--though that could be because they don’t entirely accept it. Their casual attitude towards it all initially leads the reader to wonder whether any of these otherworldly occurrences are real. Does the corn literally talk, or is a metaphor?

Finn never wavers in his belief. He listens to the corn. He accepts responsibility for a magical horse who takes him on nighttime rides to locales he can never reach in the daytime. Roza, too, adapts to each supernatural element as it enters her life, determined to navigate the reality before her rather than waste time debating what is or isn’t real. Both central characters recognize the world isn’t always straightforward. It’s not always made up of the bits and pieces society tells you to expect.

The story’s magic took me places I never expected to go. As the tale winds along, it comes to resemble two interrelated Greek myths I’ve never seen combined in such a way before this. I shan’t tell you which myths they are, seeing as they could count as far more major a spoiler than those details outlined above, but trust me: you’re gonna appreciate ‘em.

Unless you know nothing about Greek myths, in which case you’ll appreciate the story simply for being a powerful piece of fiction, rather than an allusive one. It works on multiple levels.

Damn, y’all. I haven’t said nearly enough about this glorious book. BONE GAP began as nothing I’d ever wanted, but by the end I was sobbing my fucking heart out because it was so fucking perfect. I want you to read it. Please stick with it, even if it seems to shut you out at first. It’ll open its heart to you eventually, and it is very much worth waiting for.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read BONE GAP, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through Kobo, The Book Depository, Amazon, or Audible. I get an extra month of Scribd if you sign up for a free trial.

  1. Jo Walton refers to “incluing” as the process of scattering various bits of information throughout the text to help readers make sense of a literary landscape. Fantasy and science fiction readers are used to decoding a great deal of incluing, though Walton posits that readers who gravitate most strongly to general fiction often have difficulty with this process when they encounter it in books set outside the everyday world. They would prefer to see everything explained on the page so they know what they’re getting right off the bat. Y'all should read her article on it.


  1. Hm. Okay. I have such a dilemma with this! I trust you and Ana so much, but ALSO I have promised myself I wasn't going to read any more stories about missing white girls. What to do!

    1. That's a tough one. Does it make a difference that Roza is Polish, not American?