REVIEW: “The Bone Plain” by Karin Tidbeck

Review of Karin Tidbeck’s, “The Bone Plain”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“The Bone Plain” is an evocative story about a young woman trying to escape a terrible incident from her past. Erika travels west until there’s no more west in front of her. By accident, she falls in with a group of pilgrims travelling ‘the trail’, and follows them on their pilgrimage because they provide company, distraction, and a sense of safety. As their journey continues Erika’s story unfolds. She is fleeing from her life with Aidan; an older man who pretended to be her friend, but actually wanted to be much more. She is running from ‘The hand reaching out from the foot of the bed. The moist lips on her foot,’ and from the uncomfortable sense that she has done something violent in order to escape.

At first glance, “The Bone Plain” seems to contain barely a hint of the science fictional or the fantastical. However, a few key differences from our own world clearly set it outside the realms of reality. Erika’s trail takes her to the cathedral of ‘Our Lady of World’s End’; an intriguing, fictional religious figure. Erika then travels on to the ‘plains’ of the title where ‘The bones lay scattered all over the plain, the smallest one the length of a bus.’ While the bones described could easily be dinosaur bones, establishing them as real (if extinct) creatures, our world doesn’t contain a huge plain of bones ‘supposedly arranged along leylines’ that pilgrims can visit. With these simple touches, the reader is placed kindly, but firmly, in a different realm; although one that still contains familiar touchstones like payphones, pastries, and knock-off trainers. At the end, a central unsettling mystery that has the potential to complicate the reader’s understanding of Erika is left hanging in the air, and this compliments the story’s general slightly odd and out of time feeling.

“The Bone Plain” illuminates the healing potential of a journey embarked on without a clear sense of purpose. It’s a story which presents an equally satisfying alternative to the driven, questing nature of many fantasy stories. The pleasure of this alternate structure creeps up on you as Karin Tidbeck deftly balances hard history and difficult questions alongside companionship and Erika’s growing sense of reconnecting with herself. A very gratifying story, and a second reading allows you to fully savour Erika’s slow development.