Wake the Bones by Elizabeth Kilcoyne
The sleepy little farm that Laurel Early grew up on has awakened. The woods are shifting, the soil is dead under her hands, and her bone pile just stood up and walked away.
Laurel Early is a Southerner, raised with tobacco farming, moonshine and a motley crew of hometown friends. Now that she’s teetering over the edge of adulthood, she’s back in the lives of said friends. She dropped out of college and is back to working in the fields, a disappointment nobody will address directly.
Outside of tending the crops, Laurel’s hobby is as odd as she is. She’s an amateur taxidermist who creates jewelry out of scavenged bones. And sometimes, when she’s working with those bones, she feels something in her bones: the animal’s last moments, including their deaths.
Death is a concept Laurel Early intimately understands. When she was a baby, her mother died a gruesome, confusing death, something that sticks to Laurel like a sweaty shirt in the Kentucky sun.
It’s not just death that sticks to Laurel. It’s also magic, the whispered-about black magic of her dead mother and her own strange-but-benign bone reading. And, worse, the malevolent magic of a creature who threatens everyone and everything she loves, first making its presence known by animating a pile of discarded bones.
Wake the Bones isn’t gory but creepy and dark. I wasn’t scared reading it, even though I was in a tent. Still, I was very much invested in finding out what would happen to Laurel, Isaac, Garrett, and Ricky. And it wasn’t just the “being stalked by a pile of bones” situation that had me needing to know how they’d all turn out: Kilcoyne infused a lot of humanity in her characters and put them through hell in a variety of ways, including abusive family, being queer in the rural South, poverty, and an overall sense of being stuck in a small town that isn’t always a good place to be.
People either love or hate the prose of Kilcoyne’s descriptions. I’m on the yea side. She evoked the South quite well, and I could easily envision the tobacco fields, the loose jeans, the intense weather and, of course, all of the wild woods that hold much of the story. This novel truly meets the descriptor of ‘atmospheric.’ The setting is as much a character as the people; the people are just as moody as the setting.
Wake the Bones moves quickly, as dark and twisty as it is. It’s not long before you, the reader, are embroiled in the spooky mysteries of the Early farm. The end is not a neatly squared away resolution, which I appreciate in a book. Instead, it’s a conclusion that feels much more realistic — shaky, tenuous ground and tentative steps across it.
One final content note: with the various complexities and tough knots of this story — abuse, abandonment — I am a bit surprised that it’s considered a YA book. I think many young adults could handle it, to be exact (and many young adults also deal with what these characters are carrying). Still, I wouldn’t want to pass this over to a younger teen or pre-teen without a good idea of the content warnings.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.