Long ago Miren O’Malley’s family prospered due to a deal struck with the Mer: safety for their ships in return for a child of each generation. But for many years the family have been unable to keep their side of the bargain and have fallen into decline. Miren’s grandmother is determined to restore their glory, even at the price of Miren’s freedom.
A spellbinding tale of dark family secrets, magic and witches, and creatures of myth and the sea; of strong women and the men who seek to control them.
I read a collection of Slatter’s short stories several years ago, and her masterful prose was enough of a reason for me to request All the Murmuring Bones on Netgalley. Some of these stories (or similar stories inspired by them) appear in this book, though you don’t need to have read them to follow along.
Miren’s story starts with the death of her grandfather, and the subsequent discovery that she’s about to married of to her despicable cousin, in order to save the family’s fortune and continue the family name. It takes a while to get to know Miren, but as the reader spends more time with her on her journey, her strength, determination and resilience shine through. This is a quietly but deeply feminist novel; while Miren doesn’t loudly proclaim her right to equality, she does whisper it to herself, repeatedly. Meanwhile, the inherent danger that comes with being a woman, and the chaffing caused by a lack of agency permeate this story. The side characters are less well-rounded, perhaps with the exception of Miren’s grandmother, a terrifying but also pitiable woman who has fallen victim to the same insidious family politics as Miren is about to be subjected to.
Additionally, on the atmospheric front, Slatter absolutely delivers. All the Murmuring Bones contains all the hallmarks of a gothic novel – murderous mer-people, ghastly ghosts, terrible weather, and plenty of family secrets to be uncovered. Warning: Miren (and many of her family members) did not have nice or normal childhoods. There is also a dash of magic – Miren doesn’t consider herself a witch, but with a drop of blood and a few words, she can make even the most barren garden bloom.
Admittedly, while this book contains all the hallmarks of the gothic genre, it doesn’t necessarily pursue the traditional narrative structure of the gothic novel. This is a character-driven, atmospheric novel where the focus is on the journey, rather than the destination. Miren’s goals are typically short-term, survival-driven, and the plot jumps from location to location as Miren continues to flee danger. There’s not one creepy, rundown house, but two, and no one ghost or mer haunting Miren’s travels, but several. The result is that All the Murmuring Bones feels a little aimless, lost adrift at times (much like Miren herself). There’s a lot of stuff happening, and it’s hard to tell what’s important and what’s just there to create a macabre feel.
Despite these occasional misgivings, I really enjoyed All the Murmuring Bones overall; the journey was definitely a rewarding (if occasionally horrifying) one.
Note: I received an ARC from Titan Books. All the Murmuring Bones was published on 9 March 2021.