The Bone Seeker begins with both the style and plot of quite a standard crime novel. Teacher and ex-polar bear hunter Edie sees Martha Salliaq on a Friday afternoon at school. Martha drops her bag and make up falls out; Edie notes this is unusual for an Inuk girl. She asks Martha if she is going anywhere special and the teenager is coy, excusing herself in a hurry. Edie wonders what she is hiding, and the narrative tells us this was the last time she saw her. For Martha, the mysterious young girl, is the inevitable murder victim.
The discovery of Martha’s body happens very early in the book, and the hunt for her is very short. Up until she is found I was reminded of Margie Orford’s Water Music, as in both stories a determined civilian woman takes on the case of a missing girl, a girl who is intelligent and well-liked, but who has secrets no one would ever guess. Both stories are also set in landscapes and societies that are ‘foreign’ to me as a reader – Water Music takes place is Cape Town, while The Bone Seeker is set on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic.
The location is a crucial part of this story. In the 1950s the Canadian government moved a vast amount of Inuit people from their homes in northern Quebec to the High Arctic, which incorporates Ellesmere Island. Officially the move took place in order to provide the Inuit people with better resources and better quality of life; but in fact they were not properly provided for and measures were not taken to make sure that life would actually be better in the north. As a result the Inuit communities were poor and insular, and a great resentment grew towards the Canadian government. In The Bone Seeker the Inuit are very suspicious of anything from the south and see themselves as entirely separate from the qalunaat (non-Inuits) who live with them in the north.
Edie is Inuk and understands the deep rooted traditions and beliefs within the community – that it is wrong to speak of the dead until a certain amount of time has passed, so that the spirit can leave the body; and that certain places are ‘haunted’, plagued with evil spirits. One of these places is the half dried up lake where Martha’s body is found. It is located on the site of a decommissioned Radar Station, somewhere that nothing grows and that no animals will visit. The Inuit people believe it is an evil place because of this, but Edie knows that its history as a Radar Station must have something to do with its being ‘off limits’ and somewhere that people do not like to go.
McGrath’s prose is clear and simple, with not too much flowery language thrown in for no reason. Her plotting is well crafted, though at times the suspense and tension melted into long, slow sections where you are just dying for the story to move forward (there is a fair bit of legal investigation too, and this can get a little muddled). The novel is very atmospheric however, with a palpable sense of both place and society. There is a lot going on, and it does get a bit muddled at times. There are a lot of different paths of investigation that Edie explores, and a lot of people involved, and sometimes the strands got a little twisted around each other. At the end it all slots into place, but I couldn’t help feel that some things got more attention while others that were just as important were left a bit in the background.
The only things that really bothered me were the horrific nature of Martha’s murder, which I found a little unnecessary as well as unexplained (given the nature of her murder I also think the bloody knife on the cover is not quite appropriate), and the fact that when her killer is actually discovered it feels like a bit of an anticlimax. By that point the conspiracy theories and government secrets have become the main focus of the story.
As I said, The Bone Seeker starts out as a pretty standard crime novel as Edie and her partner Derek, a police officer, investigate Martha’s murder; but it becomes much more than that when they start to look into the secrecy surrounding the place where she was found, and the interest that the military seem to take in it. Why do they cordon it off and try to take over the investigation? Why will no one talk about happened at the Radar Station before it was closed?
As it goes on the novel becomes more and more about the secrets kept by the military, the government and the Defence Department, as well as the deep injustices committed against the Inuit people. M.J. McGrath conducted a lot of research into what happened, and there is a lot of historical and legal detail as the mystery slowly unfolds, and it is revealed that the relocation was just the start of the Inuit people’s problems. I expected the ‘bone seeker’ of the title to be the murderer or perhaps a weapon, but it turns out to be something else entirely. You might be surprised.
Published by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, on 5th June 2014. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.