Review: Tall Bones by Anna Bailey

When seventeen-year-old Emma leaves her best friend Abi at a party in the woods, she believes, like most girls her age, that their lives are just beginning. Many things will happen that night, but Emma will never see her friend again.  

Abi’s disappearance cracks open the façade of the small town of Whistling Ridge, its intimate history of long-held grudges and resentment. Even within Abi’s family, there are questions to be asked – of Noah, the older brother whom Abi betrayed, of Jude, the shining younger sibling who hides his battle scars, of Dolly, her mother and Samuel, her father – both in thrall to the fire and brimstone preacher who holds the entire town in his grasp. Then there is Rat, the outsider, whose presence in the town both unsettles and excites those around him. 

Anything could happen in Whistling Ridge, this tinder box of small-town rage, and all it will take is just one spark – the truth of what really happened that night out at the Tall Bones….

“Guilt is a hard body to bury, no matter how many times you might claim God forgives you. You let some things fester long enough, they grow teeth and claws and crawl their way back to the surface again.”

Tall Bones is a slow burn crime mystery with the author dropping crumbs and sowing seeds rousing intrigue and curiosity throughout. It’s well written with engaging prose with moments of excellent imagery and metaphors that lingered in the mind.

At the heart of Tall Bones is the Blake family, and what a terrible environment their home is. The father, Samuel, is violent and an alcoholic. The mother, Dolly, is an abused housewife who feels so trapped she’s paralysed. The oldest son Noah is not accepted by his father due his homosexuality and is physically punished for it. The youngest son Jude is rejected by his father because he’s handicapped from an injury to his leg. And the only daughter, Abigail, is the apple of Samuel’s eye – and has blew everything up since going missing in the book’s opening chapter. 

Meanwhile, Abigail’s best friend, Emma Alvarez, is drinking away her grief in booze because some people believe Abigail’s disappearance is her fault for leaving Abigail in the woods. There’s also Rat – a Romanian immigrant on the outskirts of town in a trailer park. He supplies Emma with her booze and he’s secretly seeing Noah.

I really liked Emma’s perspective as the world as she knew it is essentially turned on its head. First losing her friend and then as she tries to get to bottom of Abigail’s disappearance, she contemplates if they were really friends at all. Emma’s grief, confusion and loneliness were probably the most enjoyable parts of the entire story because I really wanted to give her a hug.

The setting of Tall Bones, Whistling Ridge, was extremely oppressive and unnerving, made even more intimidating knowing it was secluded up in the mountains like another world altogether. The town has deeply religious roots and its community is prejudicial and unwelcoming toward “outsiders” and those who the Bible deem sinners. But the expression don’t throw stones in glass houses comes to mind…
The pastor delivers demonising sermons, crosses adorn the walls, the congregation amalgamates to give judgement and gossip. As the story goes on, it became very suffocating imagining living in this place.

Fair warning to prospective readers who may feel uncomfortable with such content: the town in this book is homophobic and racist in nature. For instance, the word f*ggot is used, and there was a sermon about how the internet encourages the acceptance of homosexuals and “love is love”, but the pastor commands the town to remember that God is God, and who is the woke internet to tell God what is what, instead of God guiding us. Moreover, Emma is subject to racial slurs and abuse like “get on a bus back to Mexico” and there’s also rhetoric like “don’t mix the races”. 

There was quite a few things I didn’t enjoy. I felt some of the subplots worked well like Noah’s sexuality and the influence of religion on the community, but other subplots didn’t compliment the story, like Vietnam and Emma’s parental subplots – they could have been completely erased from the book and it wouldn’t have changed anything.

Something that confused me was the way sexual assault, sexual harassment and paedophilia was included. I felt like the story and some characters only worked on the backbone of these events, yet I felt we were shied away from an actual discussion surrounding it. This just didn’t work for me. If it’s integral to the plot and characters, then it shouldn’t just be eluded to or vaguely covered. That’s just my personal feelings and so I found Tall Bones disappointing on that front. 

I was also rather frustrated with the jumping back and forward timelines. The “now” timeline unfolds in a linear way, but I eventually realised that the “then” timeline wasn’t linear but rather haphazard and jumbled. The timeline definitely confuses the narrative to misdirect the reader, which is clever, but it’s just not a style I enjoyed. 

Tall Bones is a decent debut that showcases the close nature of small town atmospheres. This reminded me of Long Bright River by Liz Moore in the way the story unfolded, so if you liked that maybe check this out (and vice versa). My personal recommendation for a small town murder mystery that has excellent setting and pace is The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel. 

Thank you kindly to the publishers and Netgalley for providing me with an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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