Joan Aiken: Bone and Dream
A St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2002
The final novelette in Joan Aiken’s St Boan trilogy (sometimes called the St Ives trilogy) again features Ned Thorne, his Aunt Lal and Uncle Adam Carne during a spell in a Cornish seaside town. Summoned another time by his aunt to ‘sort out’ a little problem, he takes a bus instead of the train he took in In Thunder’s Pocket and notices a very clammed-up anxious girl on the same journey. It turns out she — Jonquil is her name — is taking over from her sister Fuchsia to be the new ‘muse’ for a rather overbearing poet called Sir Thomas Menhenitt, the Poet Laureate of Wessex. And Sir Thomas (his surname is genuinely Cornish) is as scary as his reputation suggests; Ned remembers his lines about encountering a thrush, which in fact perfectly sum up people’s reaction to him:
All I had wanted was to hear him sing,
My presence made him flinch and take to wing . . .
Sir Thomas lives in Dudeney Lodge, where Ned attempts at first in vain to find a lost poem. Outside the house is a monkey-puzzle tree, araucaria, which serves as an indication that things aren’t as they seem. (The name of Dudeney Lodge seems to be inspired, very appropriately, by Henry Dudeney from East Sussex, who was best known as a creator of mathematical puzzles.) Sir Thomas, indeed, turns out to be some kind of psychic vampire, sucking the joy, vitality and essence from his muses; and it is up to Ned with his trusty key, and with the help of his ghostly friend Eden, a bell and a mirror, to attempt to resolve the whole issue.
Does Ned find that lost poem? A large part of Bone and Dream is taken up with Sir Thomas composing and dictating a villanelle, during which he badgers and bullies Jonquil. That hectoring approach, along with the announcement of the death of a previous muse called Rose, seem to seal his fate before those missing lines are ever found. The key is in the repeating lines, ones which must finally end as rhyming couplets; they seems to suggest that Sir Thomas’ fate is to be incorporeal:
to me the history of my bone is dream
small wonder that I am is what I seem
Bone and Dream is a strange little wrapping up of an odd little trilogy. Themes are revisited but shade into darker shadows; everything is dreamlike. The pervading mood is melancholy, no doubt a reflection of Joan’s own life. In 2001 her husband Julius had died. A visit to St Ives then inspired her to write the St Boan trilogy. Bone and Dream was published a little less than two years before her own death in early 2004, and this sad trilogy feels like a premonition.
But there are still touches of life in this third piece — the flower names of Rose, Fuchsia and Jonquil, the thrush of the poem, the lilac grove in the garden — to remind us that life in all its glory is still with us.