It’s not often that a speculative fiction title from a small press gets nominated for one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards. David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother is the notable exception, having made this year’s longlist for the Giller Prize. I recently had the opportunity to speak to Sandra Kasturi, as well as some of the rest of the team from ChiZine, at Word on the Street, and I felt I had to check it out.
The Bone Mother is a wonderful collection. The stories it contains are told from the perspective of a collection of monsters from Slavic myth stretching across the past century, focused in three small, neighbouring villages on the Ukrainian/Romanian border, all centered around the ominous thimble factory from which many workers don’t return. The inhabitants live in close quarters with these beings of old, some almost human in form, others that are creatures of pure nightmare. A few of these stories flash forward to the modern era, after war and the mysterious Night Police, depicted as a sort of monster gestapo, force a diaspora of the creatures and those inhabitants blessed or cursed enough to have their lives entwined with them. The overarching narrative seems to me to be one of pain, loss, alienation, and cultural displacement in a place where these kinds of death are all too frequently a way of life.
Demchuk’s prose is mystical and surreal without being over the top, and the whole thing reads like a collection of beautiful bad dreams, the sort of stories you would tell to frighten misbehaving children. Adding to the historical realism of the book is a haunting collection of photographic plates, used to begin each of the stories set in the old world, which provide worn, cracked, and faded faces to the narrators. The collection itself is authentic, part of a larger set of over 5,000 images shot during the First World War by Roman photographer Costica Acsinte, all of which is now in the public domain.
My only complaint is that, while I wasn’t looking for or expecting a happy ending of any kind, The Bone Mother both reads and ends a bit too ambiguously for my taste. I for one would liked to have heard a bit more about the origins of these creatures and how they came to be concentrated in these villages. Without wishing to spoil too much, I will say that a circle of persecuted local worship of one of the ancient inhuman god/monsters is explicitly mentioned in one of the stories, but this didn’t feel like enough. I was also curious about the Night Police. Their reach is apparently vast, their origins supposedly as ancient as the creatures they hunt, and their Nazi ties heavily implied by the wartime chapters, but as arch-enemies go, they remain largely faceless.
But, of course, that was all probably the point. As with any work of supernatural horror set in something like the real world, too much realism might have spoiled the mystique, and I give full credit to Demchuk for balancing these as well as he did in his debut novel. There is, after all, something to be said for a story that leaves you both satisfied and wanting more. I sincerely hope Demchuk brings us back to this dark fantasy world in books to come.