Near the Bone
by Christina Henry
Whoo, boy, this was Not Good™.
Let me throw the obligatory “SPOILERS” warning out now, because I have some things to say about this book that need to be said. Things that I wish other reviewers had included in their critiques so I could have saved myself from reading this.
The TL;DR version of this book is, “Woman gets the shit kicked out of her by her husband and then gets hunted by him AND a monster.” Trigger warnings for abuse, rape, violence, gaslighting, victim-blaming, murder, and gore.
I’ve read Christina Henry before, and this is a far cry from what I expected. In her dark fairy tale retellings she was witty, imaginative, and entertaining. Compared to those, this book is woefully lacking.
A longer explanation of this book is that our MC, Mattie, lives alone on a mountain with her husband. She finds a dead fox, and she and William (the husband) realize they have a monster problem. Then a few young adults who have no business being the ones to hunt the monster show up.
One of my biggest gripes about this is that the blurb in no way prepares you for what you’re walking into. There’s this line, “She must never make him upset” about William because “Terrible things happen when William is angry”. So yeah, it’s hinted at that maybe he’s violent, but FFS, you need to be a bit clearer about that when the entire first half of the book is almost solely comprised of him beating her LITERALLY senseless.
He is always upset. He is always doing terrible things to Mattie. It’s not like she can act a certain way to escape his abuse or predations, like the blurb makes it seem. It’s just an unrelenting onslaught of violence.
And it’s done terribly. I’ve read abusive husbands before. A great example of one can be found in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies. That man is terrifying. The depiction of abuse is insidious and unsettling in a way that stayed with me for weeks after I finished reading it. His character was as repulsive as it was compelling. And it’s all incredibly subtle, which made it that much more harrowing to read.
In contrast, William is nothing but an archetype. It’s like Henry researched the physical aspects of abuse and none of the psychological ones. Why does this man hit his wife? What is his reasoning? His rationale? All we’re given is “because Jesus”, and the way it’s presented falls so flat that William comes across as nothing but a one-dimensional Evil Husband.
I want to make it clear that I in no way expect abusers to be written as sympathetic characters, but in order to make any villain even remotely compelling, they have to have some sort of depth, and there was none here.
To make matters worse, his character makes zero goddamn sense. One moment he’s being hyper-protective of Mattie, coveting her, desperate to keep her hidden from another man because he’s clearly terrified of someone finding out what he does to her and then losing her, and not ten minutes later, he beats her unconscious on the side of the mountain and leaves her out there after dark knowing that a monster is nearby. Mattie manages to drag herself back to their cabin in the darkness, barely able to walk, obviously grievously injured and concussed, and William refuses to unlock their door even though she’s screaming that the monster is out there with her.
Another thing that makes zero goddamn sense is how she could barely walk or function after William assaulted her, hasn’t eaten in over 24 hours, hasn’t slept, spent the night cramped up hiding in their outhouse, but when William yells at her to hurry first thing the next morning, she’s able to run. After not being able to walk more than a step or two just hours before.
No. That’s not how it works. You don’t get beaten so badly that you can’t walk, are starved, then sleep-deprived, and then are suddenly able to run like you just needed to catch your second wind.
Now, about that monster. It’s hard to be afraid of something when you describe it as a large bear and then only let your characters get shadowy glimpses of it. It’s hard to be afraid of something when most of the “scary” things the creature does happens off the page. Because of all these vagaries, for, like, 90% of the book I was convinced the monster was a metaphor for William.
Mattie, it turns out, has been living up there on the mountain with him since she was eight. Yeah, you read that right. Almost right away you figure out how that happened – nothing about this book is subtle or complex. Anyway, I thought that would leave her with some deep psychological scars and maybe the monster was all in her head.
And lord, that ending. It’s so abrupt. There is a main plot line that doesn’t get resolved, and not in an open-ended way where the reader is left imagining what might of happened. No, it’s just not addressed at all.
All in all I think this book suffers from trying to do two things at once. Had this been a domestic thriller with Mattie trying to survive and escape William it might have worked, had both characters had more depth. Or, as a couple alone on a mountain trying to evade a monster. But the two were combined in a lazy, undeveloped way that makes this an incredibly underwhelming book when you know what the author is capable of.