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'BONE HOUSE' Seeking answers to a death, maid learns about herself



Published: Sun, April 14, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



A surprise ending and an enthralling story provide the elements for a good read.

By THERESA HEGEL

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

"Bone House" by Betsy Tobin (Washington Square Press, $13.)

If you were a fan of Tracy Chevalier's "Girl with a Pearl Earring," you may find "Bone House," by former Ohioan Betsy Tobin, an engrossing and rewarding read.

Though the novels are set in different countries and different eras, they have a similar scope. Both stories unfold from the perspective of an insightful, young heroine, and both are written in luscious prose with gorgeous attention to detail.

That said, "Bone House" is a much more chilling tale than "Girl with a Pearl Earring," though no less elegant.

In a village in Elizabethan England, Dora, the fearless, great-bellied prostitute whose influence and renown reached beyond the borders of the village, is found dead at the bottom of a ravine.

Dora, generous of body and spirit, touched the lives of everyone around her, whether male or female. Even in death, the villagers cannot quite let go of her.

The narrator, a young chambermaid in the Great House, becomes obsessed with Dora's demise and begins a search for answers behind what has been deemed an accidental death.

More to story: Though the narrator's original intention is to discover the secrets of Dora's death, her purpose soon evolves when she realizes what a small role she has played in Dora's life. The maid's actions develop into a frantic attempt to unlock the mystery that was Dora.

Soon after her investigation commences, the master of the Great House requests her help. He has commissioned a painter to do a portrait of the dead woman, and he wants the maid to guide the painter, as one would an artist rendering a police sketch.

As the maid relates stories from Dora's life and tries her best to describe the essence of the deceased, the painter too becomes haunted with Dora and offers his help in the maid's quest.

When Dora's corpse is stolen then recovered but defiled, an unborn baby cut from its stomach, the villagers realize what the narrator knew instinctively all along: Dora's death was more than mere accident.

What happens next: Accusations fly, the most popular being charges of witchcraft. The local midwife, who happens to be the narrator's own mother, becomes the chief suspect.

In addition to carrying out her original purpose, the narrator, who proves resourceful and bright, strives to clear her mother's name, uncovering family secrets in the process.

Immersed in unraveling Dora's life, the maid unintentionally discovers a few things about herself and her place in the world.

In a spectacular debut, Betsy Tobin creates a masterful mystery and an enthralling story. The writing will take your breath away, and the shocking ending will take you by surprise.

hegel@vindy.com




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