Bone House

Betsy Tobin, Author
Betsy Tobin, Author Scribner Book Company $23 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7432-0196-4
Reviewed on: 02/01/2001
Release date: 02/01/2001
Paperback - 224 pages - 978-0-7434-0616-1
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A maid in early 17th-century rural England investigates the death of the village prostitute in this elegant, haunting debut novel. Dora, a Flemish woman from ""across the water,"" plied her trade in the village, and was accepted by the residents and admired by many. Her violent end--she is found dead at the bottom of a ravine--is therefore all the more mysterious. The unnamed narrator, a 19-year-old maid to an elderly mistress and her reclusive, deformed son, Edward, in the Great House, recalls Dora as an earthy and sensual woman, a teller of stories who was far warmer than the narrator's own mother, the village midwife. The narrator and her mother care for Dora's misfit son, called Long Boy, only 11 but ""trapped in a man's body,"" after his mother's death. When it becomes known that Dora was pregnant when she died and had premonitions of her fate, the maid begins to investigate. Meanwhile, a foreign-born portrait painter comes to stay at the Great House, and the narrator is pulled into his orbit when Edward secretly asks for a commemorative portrait of the dead Dora. While the village churns with suspicions, the heroine continues her quiet but obsessive search for the truth. At the same time, her connection to the painter grows stronger, and she increasingly questions women's place in the world. These larger themes are handled adroitly; the realistic period detail is meticulously rendered; and the naturalness of the heroine's thought processes and inner life adds to the authenticity. If the plot twists are at times melodramatic, a quieter balance is achieved through the background of post-Elizabethan village life and customs. (Feb. 1) Forecast: A taut and assured debut, the novel will appeal to readers of Poison by Kathryn Harrison and Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (who blurbs the book). Tobin, an American who lives in England, could win many readers here through handselling of this seductive story.
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