The time and place for scientific investigation and the time and place for letting nature run its course is an ethical intersection becoming increasingly prominent in modern society. Stem cell research: beneficial to humanity, or a violation of human rights? Cloning: a way to the future, or a mega-problem waiting to burst? Animal testing: necessary, or cruelty? Two hundred years ago the questions were more basic but no less profound. Pat Murphy’s 1990 novella Bones explores one of these questions: should a corpse be put to use by medical science, or laid to rest peacefully?
Bones is the semi-biographical account of two men, Charlie Bryne and John Hunter, both real personages from history, and opens with the story of Bryne’s conception. The size of an adult by age 10 and more than eight feet tall by the time he’s twenty, his father is a man of Irish legend—a heritage that Bryne’ mother instills in him as the massive youth grows older. Ever increasing numbers of Irish leaving for London, Bryne, after meeting an English cardsharp, heads to the big city to join them, his mission to bring the Irish back to their homeland. Living in London at the same time is the renowned surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. Grave robber by night and scholar by day, Hunter spends his days investigating cadavers with an eye to the bizarre. It is thus running into Bryne’s eight foot frame on the street one day that his interest is piqued, and the two form a tentative friendship. Each man with different aims, the resolution of their situation is softly intense.
In Bones, Murphy uses supernatural elements and an idyllic version of Ireland to expand the perception of Bryne as a gentle giant. Leaving his sword behind in Ireland, the staff he takes with him is used to heal and help the Irish he encounters in London’s dirty streets, rather than rally the troops to rebellion and war. The ploy successful, upon the conclusion of Bryne’s tale (available here for those who prefer the real story) a few heart strings are tugged.
Hunter portrayed as cold and calculating, Murphy hints at an associated agenda, but never openly states it. The reader is led to sympathize with Bryne, but for what reason? Is science evil? Do the bones of the dead have a right to peace in the ground or purification through fire? Were Hunter, and those who came after him, right in what they did to benefit science?
For me, however, the core of the story hinges on Bryne’s deterioration—the only transitory point open to discussion. Did the bleakness of London break Bryne’s heart, or was it his own inability to control his drink? Murphy seems to spin the story in one of those directions, but such an approach would do a lot of sweeping dirt under the rug to give things the appearance of cleanliness. But this may be a personal quarrel: if the aim is real world commentary, it behooves the writer to present facts. I digress, as regardless whether the Bryne’s personal problems are glossed over distracts little from the major quandary: scientific progress vs. peace in death.
In the end, Bones is a well-written novella (Murphy’s prose is at almost all times liquid smooth) that never officially chooses sides on the victim question but does seem to hint it favors one over the other given the shadings and subtle digs. Ireland painted as a rustic idyll and London as a pit of greed and squalor, I also can’t help wondering if there was a cultural agenda, as well, but with no obvious reason, I have to give Murphy the benefit of the doubt. (A side note, Hilary Mantel purloined Murphy’s idea with her novel The Giant, O'Brien, which may be of interest to those who loved Bones.)