There are essentially three stories operating within this volume, concentrating on three different characters and several different time periods. We meet Charles Sternberg in 1876 at the outset of his career as a palaeontologist, scouring the chalk lands of Montana for fossils. We track his progress into 1896, through the death of his only daughter, and that of his benefactor and mentor Professor Cope. And we see him again in 1916, still bent over the badlands, searching – this time in Alberta – haunted by his past and grievously ill.
We also follow the story of Scott, Sternberg’s one-time protégé – now locked in the trenches of Europe burrowing for survival rather than discovery – and Lily, labouring with Sternberg in 1916, writing to Scott and loving him from a distance. We also follow Lily toward the end of her own life in 1975, on a strange personal journey.
Few writers can wield language with the facility and acuity of Bowling. With him, even the most mundane and trivial become surprising and new. In Banff, the "mountains were black, inlaid with blue-green, and surrounded the town like the sides of a tea-cup." Sitting in a restaurant, Lily thinks "the men’s voices buzzed like flies, and she waved quickly at her ears to rid herself of the sound."
The landscapes, whether they be the blasted, incandescent badlands of Alberta, or the muddy, treacherous trenches of France come to life here.
However, this same power of observation can work to Bowling’s detriment as well. Certain passages carry the weight of their descriptions. Paragraphs stretch on ponderously for several pages. As well, the reader cannot help but feel that Bowling is balancing a little too much in this novel. Timelines become confusing, stories bleed into one another.
Oddly, Bowling may even have wanted this effect, for surely one of the novel’s themes is the palimpsest – how the same landscapes are worked and reworked and the past is never far from the surface.
To be sure, The Bone Sharps requires your full attention, but is, in the end, a rewarding read.