“Scuttlebone” explores the theory that true love grows slowly through an on-off and then on relationship between Will and Lily following them through college, first jobs and settling into middle age. Lily’s two years older, brought up by two wealthy parents so she never wants for anything materially but vacillates between wanting to see and experience the world and wanting to settle down. She’s more experienced than Will, a straight A student skilled in languages with an interest in literature.
The plot, too, grows slowly, especially at the beginning where every time Will meets someone we get reminded of where he goes to college, what he’s studying what the person he’s meeting does, so the action moves in spirals rather than linearly.
That’s not to say nothing interesting happens, Will does an internship at the UN in Washington, a student is hospitalised in a coma after a beating, Will and Lily discover a woman’s body on a walk near Lily’s holiday lodge, death clearly caused by a gunshot wound. Later it’s discovered the woman was shot by one of Lily’s neighbours who’d had an affair with the victim when he discovered his wife had been unfaithful He subsequently takes his own life. None of these, however, are part of the main plot.
There are some hiccups. Will and Lily are in a queue to watch a film in 1972 when the author makes a reference to the Dunblane massacre of 1996 where a gunman entered a primary school and shot 16 children and their teacher. It’s thematically relevant as the characters are discussing violence, but Will and Lily could not have known about an event that hasn’t taken place yet so the author should have found a alternative reference that his characters would have known about, because at this point the author is giving readers his views and the reader is not reading the novel but an authorial commentry. A three month old baby is spoon-fed formula is which is odd when three month old babies are just about sitting with the aid of props and still bottle-fed (if not breast-fed). Whilst these hiccups don’t distract from the plot, they do jolt the reader momentarily out of the novel and interrupt the flow of reading. A professional edit should have picked these up.
Will is potentially an interesting narrator. He’s loquacious but relies purely on visual description: he can tell you what a house looks like, what furniture is inside, but not what it smells like. He notices there are prints on another character’s walls but can’t tell us what the prints show (animals, town-scapes, people?) He hears conversations and traffic but rarely background noise. At a Washington office, we learn he has four typewriters but not what desk they sit on, whether the office is quiet or noisy or if it smells of warmed-up coffee, secretaries’ perfume or a lingering scent of cleaning chemicals. Other characters’ clothing is often described as if Will’s writing for a fashion catalogue, eg “She wore slacks and a white blouse,” but what buttons, what materials, were these cheap or expensive clothes? Clothes can say a lot about a character, but they’re not allowed to here. The author is selective in his choice of which of Will’s internal thoughts get revealed too. We know what subjects he chooses to study and that he wants to complete college so turns down a job offer, but not how he reacts to finding the woman’s body. Of course he does the requisite things, reports the body, checks his girlfriend Lily is OK, discusses the progress of the police investigation with neighbours, but there’s no indication of what he actually feels about seeing a body for the first time or thoughts about what her death meant to people who would have known her or speculative thoughts about how he’d feel if Lily had been fatally shot or how his family would react if he’d been shot. The only reaction is puzzlement at Lily’s apparent concern for the suicidally-depressed neighbour rather than the victim, but she points out she didn’t know the victim, but did know her neighbour.
“Scuttlebone” is a pleasant, if inconsequential, read and feels like an apprentice novel from a writer who is developing an awareness of their craft.
By Emma Lee