CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 28. . . .March 22, 2013
Speaking from Among the Bones. (A Flavia de Luce Novel).
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2013.
360 pp., hardcover, $29.95.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
To tell the truth, I’d have rather been at home in my chemical laboratory than sitting here in the near-darkness of a drafty old church, but Father had insisted.
Even though Feely was six years older than me, Father refused to let her go alone to the church for her almost nightly rehearsals and choir practices.
“A lot strangers likely to be about these days,” he said, referring to the team of archaeologists who would soon be arriving in Bishop’s Lacey to dig up the bones of our patron saint.
How I was to defend Feely against the attacks of these savage scholars, Father had not bothered to mention, but I knew there was more to it than that.
In the recent past there had been a number of murders in Bishop’s Lacey: fascinating murders in which I had rendered my assistance to Inspector Hewitt of the Hinley Constabulary.
In my mind, I ticked off the victims on my fingers: Horace Bonepenny, Rupert Porson, Brookie Harewood, Phyllis Wyvern...
One more corpse and I’d have a full hand.
Each of them had come to a sticky end in our village, and I knew that Father was uneasy.
The preceding Flavia de Luce novel, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, took place during the Christmas season, and now, it’s March and Easter is less than a week away. Truly, it’s an inconvenient time for Crispin Collicutt, organist at the parish church of St. Tancred’s, to have vanished suddenly. However, his disappearance offers Flavia’s oldest sister, Ophelia (aka. Feely), the opportunity to debut as accompanists to the choir of St. T’s, and she is thrilled at the prospect.
There’s another reason for excitement at the parish of St. Tancred, located in Bishop’s Lacey, home of the de Luce family. The year 1951 marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the saint’s death, and his tomb is about to be opened. For an 11-year-old (soon to be 12), Flavia is remarkably nonplused by graveyards, and, as a young scientist, she is fascinated by the chemical workings of human bodies, both living and dead. So, she’s as excited as anyone about his exhumation, and when her sister describes saints whose disinterred bodies have been found uncorrupted, Flavia’s only response is, “Supercolossal!” “I hope I get a good squint at him when they drag him out of his box.” (13) But, when the top stone of the good saint’s sarcophagus is lifted, much to everyone’s surprise, the crypt is found to contain the earthly remains of Crispin Collicutt, his handsome face covered by a grotesque gas mask, his beautifully manicured hands now reduced to “dried fingers tightly clutching a bit of broken glass tubing.” (36) It’s a truly ghastly sight, and Flavia finds herself “torn between revulsion and pleasure – like tasting vinegar and sugar at the same time (38) before throwing herself into the mystery of how Collicutt came to be entombed in Saint Tancred’s resting place (and if Collicutt is in the crypt, where’s Saint Tancred?).
Although this book really focuses on Flavia, readers of Alan Bradley’s previous Flavia stories will catch up on the latest in the lives of the others living and working at Buckshaw, the family home. The cold war between the de Luce sisters, Daphne and Ophelia, continues; Mrs. Mullet, the family’s cook and housekeeper, does her well-meaning best to uphold the tradition of bad British cooking; and Dogger, her father’s WWII comrade-in arms and man-of-all trades at Buckshaw, takes on an increasingly avuncular role in Flavia’s life. Although Dogger clearly suffers from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder, Flavia’s father is not doing well, either:
Father’s money problems had become more pressing with each passing month. There had been a time when his worries made him merely glum, but recently I had detected something which I feared was far, far worse: surrender. Surrender in a man who had survived a prisoner-of-war camp was almost unthinkable,... Now, it seemed as if he no longer cared. (14-15)
Nevertheless, Flavia continues to thrive because, despite the difficulties of her family life, she has an extraordinary curiosity about the rest of the world around her, and she soaks up facts and information like a sponge. Music history, the workings of a pipe organ, or how to cook up new and exciting poisons all interest her, but poisons are undeniably her passion. Who else could describe the beautiful colour transformation of strychnine crystals as “a perfect rainbow of ruin!” (64) Fortunately, Flavia uses her considerable chemical knowledge only for the good; one shudders to think were she inclined otherwise. And as readers, we learn as much about chemistry as she does.
At the end of the preceding novel, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, it seemed as if the series was about to end without our finding out the fate of Harriet, Flavia’s mother, who disappeared when her daughter was a mere infant. Flavia not only resembles her mother, in Speaking From Among the Bones, her father tells her, “You are your mother”, and as a result, her life “will not be an easy one.” (177-178) “And, the book ends with Col. deLuce’s announcement to his three daughters that “Your mother has been found.” (358) But how, and where? Yet another mystery to be solved.
As in his previous four Flavia novels, Alan Bradley provides plenty of back story for those new to the books, and followers of the series will certainly enjoy re-acquainting themselves with characters from earlier books. The story is firmly situated in post-WWII Britain, and memories of air raids, rations, and victory gardens are still fresh. But Speaking From Among the Bones is not sentimental, and it’s clear that there’s plenty of darkness in the little hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia often seems much older than her years, and readers of her story are likely to be older than she is. She’d undoubtedly bristle at the term “chick lit”, but her fans (at least in high school) are likely to be female.
Joanne Peters, a retired high school teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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