The bitter enmity of the Bosnian conflict rises to the surface in The Bone Road, bringing a dark tone to this highly atmospheric novel. It’s the first venture into the world of thrillers for Natasha Solomons, an author who’s won awards for her literary output.
The plot revolves around the disappearance of a sports journalist who is in the Balkans to report on a cycling race. On a day off, Ryan heads into the mountains with his girlfriend, a former professional cyclist and Olympics favourite. He’s ahead of her on the steep route back to their hotel, but suddenly he’s no longer there.
Police initially dismiss Heather’s concerns. In their eyes Ryan went off in a huff after the pair had an argument. There are more pressing matters demanding their attention — namely the discovery of two headless, handless bodies in a nearby river. It’s evident that they’d been tortured before they died.
But, when Ryan’s blood-stained bike is discovered, police inspector Simo Subotić begins to see there is more to this case than meets the eye. Some elements of Ryan’s past life don’t add up plus Subotić has a feeling there is also something not quite right about Heather Bishop. Is she deliberately being evasive or can she genuinely not remember details that could help find out what’s happened to Ryan.
The Bone Road has a strong filmic quality so I wasn’t surprised to discover Solomons is a screenwriter. Too often I’ve come across novels where it’s very obvious that some scenes exist purely because they would translate well to the screen. But that’s not the case here — the high octane scenes and brooding setting of the Bosnian mountains are not bolt ons, but essential elements of the story.
Repeatedly we find the clash between the beauty of this landscape and the ugliness of the events it witnessed. Contradictions that are evident too within the people who inherit this part of the world: hatred and animosity between ethnic groups yet “boundless and soul deep” hospitality and kinship.
If pace and atmosphere were all The Bone Road offered, I probably wouldn’t have found it all that remarkable. Two things made all the difference.
One was the central character of police inspector, Simo Subotić. He’s a man whose disregard for authority has caused his relegation from police headquarters to a low level border town. Subotić’s outspoken views make him unpopular too with many local people. As a Serb he is horrified by some of the atrocities perpetrated by his countrymen in the war, and he wants justice for their victims.
Dozens or more dead lying buried on farmland, ignored and disregarded until the land herself belched out her secrets. They deserved better.
The other notable feature for me, was the seamless way in which the legacy of the Bosnian conflict is woven into the story.
Solomons shows that hostility and suspicion linger on between the ethnic Serbs and Bosniaks, fuelled by accusations of ethnic cleansing and atrocities. The discovery of mass graves reinforces the belief among the Bosniaks that thousands of their people are missing because of actions by the Serbs — accusations the latter vehemently deny.
The differing responses to the past is one of the interesting themes within the book. Some citizens of modern-day Bosnia want to forget the past, some are angry about suggestions of war crime prosecutions by the International Criminal Court. Others, like Subotić, believe the truth must be discovered and faced:
… a finger, a shard of hip, a hint of the truth, to put towards the reckoning. A fragmentary payment in flesh towards a debt that could never, ever be repaid.
Precise plotting and evocative setting combined with a touch of modern history make The Bone Road well worth reading.
The Bone Road by N E Solomon: Footnotes
Natasha Solomons is the author of five internationally bestselling novels, including Mr Rosenblum’s List, The Novel in the Viola, which was chosen for the Richard & Judy Book Club, and The Gallery of Vanished Husbands. Natasha lives in Dorset with her son, daughter and her husband, the children’s author, David Solomons with whom she also writes screenplays. Her novels have been translated into 17 languages. .
The Bone Road was published in August 2022 by Polygon, an imprint of the Scottish independent press Birlinn Limited Scotland. My thanks go to the publishers for providing me with a review copy.