Rolli’s family saga is less a novel than a series of vignettes, creating a portrait of a family as decrepit as their abode. The lines that make up Mavor’s Bones linger in a space between sincerity and satire, drenching the family’s tragedy with a generous helping of dark comedy. The characters often speak with an authority they do not have, making grand statements to a house and household that care little for their pronouncements. The narrator weaves his or her disembodied voice into the story, taking on the grandiose tone of the book’s inhabitants. The poems are supplemented with curious illustrations, abstracted figures and sketched portraits adding to the absurd.
At times, the fragmentation of the poems—the short, disjointed lines, frequent indents, and wide spaces between words—seems to complement the ramshackle state of the house and its inhabitants; at others, it feels as if the author is a little too entangled in the poeticness of his writing. The deliberate cleverness of the lines has a similar hit-or-miss quality. Sometimes this appears deliberate, as in “The Old Philosopher I”; here, the language evokes a somewhat pompous character to humorous effect: “the bohemian/sauntering out the tomb/There was too little elbow-room.” The book seems self-aware at times like these, mocking its characters’ solemnity and self-regard. Other lines try too hard to impress, but there is always some redemption further along. “Recluse (The Duke)” has a witty beginning that succinctly summarizes much of the Duke’s gloomy character and includes some surprising turns of phrase:
they’ve named me
chilled to wine
I cupboard me
what man grasps hand-
I found that the collection improved significantly when I started reading sections aloud. I was then able to better appreciate how natural the rhymes feel and the rolling cadence of the poems. This strengthened my belief that the fragmentation does more in places to hinder than help. Similarly, the poems with a clear voice, where the speaker is identified as a specific family member, often ring truer than those with an unidentified speaker.
Overall, there is much to like in Mavor’s Bones. There is a hint of Mervyn Peake in the character descriptions and more than a little Lewis Carroll in the madness of it all. Read it if you like family sagas, gothic atmosphere, characters’ sometimes self-aware pontificating, stories in verse, multiple voices, and a little bit of nonsense thrown in for good measure.