Review: 'Every Bone A Prayer,' By Ashley Blooms Ashley Blooms' novel follows ten-year-old Misty, who can speak to everything around her — even the mice in the walls answer back. But she doesn't have words for what her friend has done to her.
NPR logo 'Every Bone' Speaks In This Painful, Beautiful Debut Novel

Review

Book Reviews

'Every Bone' Speaks In This Painful, Beautiful Debut Novel

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Every Bone a Prayer, by Ashley Blooms
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Misty can speak to everything around her — from the mice in the walls, to the unusual sculptures next door — and everything seems to answer back. But when it comes to naming what her friend has done to her, she cannot find the words.

Deep-rooted secrets like this one have long wrapped themselves around an Appalachian holler where generations of women grow up and disappear. Now a strange garden has risen, almost overnight, beside a trailer. All glass and sharp edges, it thrives where nothing would grow before. Ten-year-old Misty, her sister Penny, their mother, neighbors, cousins, and even the local preacher, can see the garden, and Misty can hear it speak its name.

Every Bone A Prayer, the slipstream — that liminal combination of the literary and the fantastical — debut novel written by a survivor of child sexual abuse, bears within its pages striking beauty and strangeness in equal measure.

I'm not going to veer from the truth any more than author Ashley Blooms does: This book hurts. The detailed author's note in the frontmatter only reinforces the fact that Every Bone a Prayer is a difficult, important, and beautifully rendered story of generational trauma, survival, and healing. The characters I met within its pages have stayed with me, their names and stories etched on my memory.

A book like Every Bone A Prayer exists in the space between author and reader so viscerally that you can almost hear crawdad shells crunch, wood splinter, and bones groan. And its heart? That is threaded carefully through its pages. It reveals itself slowly, within the book's many layers.

In this novel, poverty weaves through community; ownership — of property, of personal space, of land — is intrinsically tied to the bonds and boundaries of family. Layers of things unsaid are wrapped around shame, faith, and the natural world in ways that are often very close and difficult to bear.

And at the heart of this book rises a communion of names. For Misty, as well as generations of her family, and all who live nearby, knowing a name means knowing the truth. Names grow, bloom, and are lost, like memories, or gardens.

Early on, Misty learns "everything had a name. Not the name that most people know them by, but something different, an underneath name made of sounds and memories and feelings, a name that shifted and grew and evolved. Some things had many names, and some had only one. Some things had names she couldn't speak ... they were so long and twisting, filled with memory and sound." The reader knows already that names are how we find ourselves and each other, when we've become lost. Within Every Bone a Prayer, Blooms shows us how names become a bridge, for Misty especially, between the past and the present; between the physical and the mystical.

But names have an edge, too, and Bloom doesn't shy from this. As society's seemingly unbreakable taproots anchoring generations of triumphs and tragedies, names wrap around Blooms' characters, shaping them and binding them. They are stories unto themselves, these names, and when they are told, they reveal the secret, silent wars women and girls fight — and often loose — in the world of Every Bone A Prayer, and in the real world as well.

The main characters of Every Bone A Prayer are sisters. Their names seem simple at first: two syllables each. But that simplicity — like the innocence that is often expected of girls (in fiction and reality) — can lock them away from each other, from their ability to save themselves, and from finding their way back when they are lost. Generations of women, the novel tells us, have disappeared in this way, and we don't often hear their real stories, their true names. Novels like Every Bone A Prayer are important specifically because they give a lyrical voice, agency, and a resonating mythos to those fighting to reclaim their names, and selves.

Throughout the novel, in order to reveal these truths about names, and people, Blooms weaves a tapestry of quietly monstrous adults, loving family members, heartbreaking betrayals, and scenes of striking beauty. Ghosts and almost-ghosts stalk its pages. Family legends shake the scaffolding that faith offers. And through it all, Misty's magic — she can hear the "real names" of the creatures around her — as well as through the magic of other mountain residents, Every Bone A Prayer explores, from a young girl's perspective, the ways trauma impacts individuals, families, and communities.

If Southern Gothic masters Carson McCullers (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Member of The Wedding) and William Faulkner were to sit down with standard bearers of fantastic literature like Rachel Hartman (Seraphina, Tess of the Road), Jeff Vandermeer (the Southern Reach trilogy), and Frances Hardinge (Cuckoo Song, A Face Like Glass), and co-write a book, they might come close to this, but only just.

Blooms has taken the voice and names of Appalachia, tended, and evolved them, and created a book that is at once haunting and hopeful.

Fran Wilde is an author, reviewer, and essayist. She directs the genre fiction MFA program at Western Colorado University. You can find her online at franwilde.net.