Off the back of my successful first encounter with Wallis’ work I was raring to read today’s book, which was her third published novel. According to Curtis Evans who writes the introduction to this Stark House Press reprint, Wallis, an anthropologist herself, did field work and research in Europe. She ‘spent a summer excavating Azilian culture graves at the village of Montardit in the French Pyrenees’ and this is likely where she got the background for Blood from a Stone.
‘Susan Kent has come to France to explore caves. She has no more ulterior motive than to search for ancient archaeological treasures. So why does it seem that the locals are so suspicious? First there is Marc, mysterious son of the elderly Comte de l’Arize. Her digging assistant, Jean-Marie, is certainly no open book either. Nor is the Englishman, Sir Cyril, who claims to be just as interested in archaeology as Susan, but refuses to get involved in any actual discussions. The school teachers, M. Dumas and his wife, seem outright hostile. Even her companion, Neva, is acting like someone with a secret. When she almost plummets into a cave well, she wonders if it is just an accident. Or could it be that someone is actually trying to kill her?’
Superstition and science meet head on in the opening pages, as two local peasants are frightened out of their wits when they see Susan Kent, a young anthropologist, washing jaw bones in a river. Dressed in a white overall she unfortunately resembles the local legend of the scary White Woman. The cards are definitely stacked against Susan as pretty much everyone around her is in some way acting against her. Unlike my last Wallis read this story is told in the third person. This allows us to read some of the thoughts of these others, seeing the different reasons they judge her, yet these insights do not particularly enable us to figure out what their game is. On the whole I am not sure the third person voice was the best one for this book. Susan is appealing in that she is no simpering maid and has a strong can-do attitude, yet throughout the book the reader feels rather distant from her and so when she ends up in her various plights our emotions are less engaged. We don’t really get very close to the other characters either. Given how much tension is generated in Too Many Bones (1943), I was surprised by how non-frightening Susan near-death and dangerous experiences are. The writing seems to have less impact. I wondered if this might be due to the increase in physical/geographical descriptions in the text. This is a shame as the events which happen should be interesting, especially with the use of the cave setting. The relative brevity of the text might also be a contributing factor to why this book is less successful; it is a little over a hundred pages. A greater page count, and a map(!), would have made this a much stronger book.
Whilst this was not as good a read as Too Many Bones, buying the Stark House Press twofer is worth buying for this debut novel alone. It’s that brilliant!
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)