The Coral Bones

This is a book that has been getting a lot of good press in the UK of late, not least because it was a finalist for this year’s Clarke Award. It didn’t win, but it was highly fancied and I can see why.

The Coral Bones is a tale of three women from different times in Earth’s history, each of whom has a special relationship with the Great Barrier Reef. Judith is the daughter of a 19th Century English sea captain and is desperate to study the natural world, just like the famous Mr. Darwin. Hana is a Japanese-Australia scientist from the present day, studying the dying reef. And Telma is a descendant of refugees in a near future Australia where most forms of animal life except humans are functionally extinct.

I don’t know what E J Swift’s personal connection with Australia is, but speaking as someone who lived there for two years and who has swum on the reef a couple of times, she seems to know her stuff. Reading the book certainly made me homesick for Melbourne, and Cairns though I’ve barely spent more than a week there.

Adam Roberts’ cover blurb says that the book is “Beautifully written,” and I most definitely agree. Quite why this book ended up with the now sadly defunct Unsung Stories rather than with a mainstream publisher is a mystery to me. I’m particular in awe of how Swift managed the voice of Judith, because 19th Century folks do write very differently from us. She even had the little list of topics at the start of each chapter.

Judith was my favourite character for other reasons too. Hers is a very feminist narrative, and manages to be so despite the fact that she’s very privileged and treats her maid very badly. Judith loves Australia and its wildlife, whereas most of the British see it as a primitive backwater there to be exploited. She persuades her father to let her accompany him on a scientific expedition to the Reef. Poor Belinda gets dragged along as a chaperone. Judith gets to do actual science, despite the best efforts of a bunch of not very bright men.

Hana’s story is something of a murder mystery, in that it begins with a body being discovered with an environmentalist slogan daubed on it. However, if you want that to be the focus of the story you will be disappointed. Hana is in way to much of a depressive funk, partly because the reef that she loves is dying, and partly because she’s just split up with her wife. Parts of the narrative come in the form of a letter Hana is writing to Tess, but this doubles as info dump about their life together and the reasons for their breakup, much of which Tess will actually know. It comes over as quite creepy and obsessive.

Finally we have Telma whose job involves investigating environmental crimes, mostly raising extinct creatures from stored DNA and selling them to wealthy collectors in other countries. Her bosses get wind that a leafy sea dragon (an absolutely wonderful creature) has been spotted in the wild, and she is dispatched to Queensland to investigate. As is a requirement for books of this type, all three narratives will eventually be brought together in some way, and the sea dragon quest is a key part of that. However, Telma’s narrative is as much, if not more, about her inability to come to terms with the death of one of her daughters, who was a firefighter, and her withdrawal from the world as a result.

The quality of the writing and the obvious love of the Reef were the high points for me in this book. Unfortunately there were also a couple of those “you’ve got that wrong” things that tend to throw you out of any science fiction novel. And frankly this book is not intended for the likes of me. It is written to appeal to a literary fiction audience.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Heaven knows, the more people who get to worry about the state of the climate the better. And if writing a book that is mostly about three flawed characters and the bad things that they do will get that message to a wider audience then I’m all for it. I, however, already have the message, and what presumably sugar-coats it for other people did pretty much the opposite for me.

book cover
Title: The Coral Bones
By: E J Swift
Publisher: Unsung Stories
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
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