Review: Burning Bones by Miren Agur Meabe
Perhaps it’s because we have been suffering from our own rat problem recently but I was immediately taken by Meabe’s first narrative, Miramar. It begins with the words, ‘Rats have been running riot here all winter.’
I recognised her physical response, the crawling skin, ‘the itch’, as she describes it. Her revulsion is unapologetic. Di-flewyn ar dafod we would say in Welsh; straight talking. But there is so much more here than a tale of invasion by rats.
Relationships soon materialise: the vital relationship with her son, which lights up the first few pages with its honest banter. She writes about the gaps where relationships used to be, the parents and grandparents who have passed away, the absent partners.
When the tree surgeon asks her, ‘Who used to do these jobs for you before?’ she replies, ‘The men of the family.’ Apart from her son, the men of the family have either died or left.
I loved her brilliantly evocative line that the boyfriend used to be ‘an expert handler of the telescopic scythe’. There is hiraeth for family members, even for the words they used.
A whole universe is conjured by the words that were essential to them: ‘asbestos, parsley, family, do, dimple, peas, lizards, geraniums, adze, seeds, harvest, water, everyone’s, blooms, give’.
This is Meabe’s ‘little cosmos’. Little, but not insignificant because in this, and in the narratives that follow, Meabe conjures the things which loom large in all our lives, love, death, betrayal, hopes and disappointments.
Hall of mirrors
Burning Bones is described as a series of short poetic narratives. Some are like short stories, others more like snapshots in time.
The cumulative effect is that of walking into a hall of mirrors; just when you think you have grasped reality from one angle there comes another perspective. Meabe turns events and memories around with her words.
What we think we are seeing is often challenged unexpectedly; tidying up the once lovely garden turns into a bloodbath when the tree surgeon accidentally chainsaws through a nest of rats, a simple trip to the beach becomes the shocking scene of a child’s drowning, a school outing results in a horribly casual act of abuse by a gardener who smells like a swamp.
Those rats are never far away and, because Meabe’s writing is so concise and unsentimental, we are regularly caught unawares by her striking, often violent images: the toad squashed beneath the descending coffin, the father’s jealous eyes like ‘dark spiders’, the boy with a face full of pustules, her grandfather leaning against a wall at the emergency ward ‘like a vehicle parked in a hurry’, the vengeful mother systematically plunging her daughter’s head into a bath of ice-cold water.
Those who have struggled to defend their identity and who are familiar with the history of Welsh language activism will hear echoes of their own experiences in Meabe’s description of the Civil Guards knocking on the door, new husbands being hauled off to jail, the godfather burning ‘evidence’, the ikurriña flag (the official flag of the Basque Country Autonomous Community of Spain) and the fronton paddle decorated with illustrations of Basque dances being hidden behind the living room curtains.
And who remembers those innocently suggestive 1970s/early 1980s T-shirts, ‘Gwnewch popeth yn Gymraeg’? I certainly do. Mine was yellow with a loved-up young couple pictured in inky relief. Who knew they came in Basque too? Meabe tells us, ‘I do everything in Basque.’
Perhaps feeling like an outsider is a necessary qualification for an author in order to see things clearly or, as Meabe puts it, ‘In every family there is someone whose role is to observe the others.’
As a woman, a mother and someone who is doing her best to write, I found much to identify with, and admire, in Meabe’s hall of memories.
Those closest to her were not always the ones who defended her best. She is often made to feel like an outsider, even by those who should be looking out for her.
People were negligent; her mother was sometimes negligent, the nuns, who must have turned a blind eye to the abusive gardener, were negligent, her partner wasn’t by her side when she truly needed him, ‘his words were like airborne dandelion seeds’.
Meabe says, ‘We want to believe that we would never put up with certain things, that we would not accept them under any pretext, and yet we constantly do so. We find excuses to forgive the mistakes others make with us as a strategy not to reveal our own shortcomings.’
Carrying the bones of the past around with us can be exhausting. You can’t burn your memories like you can the garden rubbish, but you can use writing as a pyre.
What shines through at the end is the author’s strength and persistence, the enduring love of a son for his mother, and hers for him; a resoundingly positive response to her own question at the beginning of the book, ‘Who is this us?’
‘I’m in the trench with you. Not everyone does what you’ve done.’
‘What have I done?’
‘What animals do when they fall into a trap.’
Ultimately, isn’t this what we all wish for – to know someone who is prepared to be ‘in the trench’ with us and to possess the ability to persevere, whatever the obstacles?
Fleeting glimpses of our own garden rat suggest he has an injured, or possibly absent, hind leg. Now I wonder whether he was once trapped and gnawed it off himself, just to survive?
I was delighted to be introduced to the writing of Miren Agur Meabe. I loved Burning Bones.
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