“. . . It’s like the dust here is made of memory. You could wander in the past for years.”
Sarah Read’s debut novel The Bone Weaver’s Orchard is a fantastically atmospheric horror story. Think gothic with a splash of gore! We meet Charley in 1926 as he travels from his father’s side in Cairo to a new boarding school in England. He knows he is an unusual boy, as he has traveled across continents with jars full of bugs as his only friends. And of course, he finds trouble as soon as he arrives at Old Cross Boarding School. The other boys make fun of his bugs, and he ends up in a fight and getting a caning within the first day.
Charley tries to fit in, and makes one friend, Bowles, and they go about their days. Charley also befriends the school gardener Sam, who works only at the very edges of the school, never going inside. But then the bullies throw a rock at Bowles, injuring him badly, and Charley meets Matron Grace, the nurse. Grace is so sweet & caring, Charley could almost think of her as motherly.
Then, when he should have been in the infirmary, Bowles disappears. The headmaster says he must have run away, but Charley doesn’t think so. He turns his attention to the locked up East Wing, where many of the boys say there are ghosts. Charley begins a search that leads him into the most creepy of hidden chambers and tunnels, and he must question who his friends really are and who he can trust
The twists and turns of this novel are excellent; I didn’t guess them at all, and had a completely different theory midway. And most of all, the setting is just amazing- everything is covered in choking dust and cobwebs, the secret tunnels are in total darkness, there are chambers that are untouched for a generation. It is an ideal gothic haunted house.
I really want to give this 4 stars, but I just can’t. I am giving it 3.75 stars for the following reasons.
First, I am still pretty unsure of Charley’s motivations. Like I said before, this book has many of the trappings of a gothic novel, and one of those is a search for parentage, or a lost inheritance. But usually, that is the main character. Here, we have Sam the gardener who is looking to find out who exactly his mother was, with Charley’s help. So why does Charley care so much to crawl into those little tunnels & face these truly horrifying places? The book speaks a lot about family: the headmaster says, “we are your family now. This institution prides itself on forming the bonds that unite the future of Britain.” And of course, Charley, as a lonely boy so far from his father, should accept this new family. But he literally just met them. I have trouble believing that a 13 year old boy would risk his ass (he got caned SO many times) and eventually his life for virtual strangers.
Second, what the heck does the title have to do with the book? If you know, seriously tell me. I thought a bone weaver might be a type of spider, because of Charley’s obsession with bugs and all the comparisons to spider webs throughout the book. It’s not. Now Sam works the apple orchard, but that doesn’t seem to be a primary plot point. Anyways, it really distracted me!
Besides these minor distractions, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard was a well-paced, spooky, and fun read. I enjoyed it, and will certainly look for more books by Read.