Breath and Bones
This second novel by Ms. Cokal, following Mirabilis in 2002, has similarities to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters in that the 19th century United States is crossed, time is spent with the early Mormons in Utah, the trail ends in California, and both contain a pack of characters that are encountered and re-encountered throughout the narrative. McPheeters is about twenty years earlier than Breath and Bones; Jaimie crosses by covered wagon, Famke by the trains. While McPheeters maintains an upbeat quality throughout its harrowing events, Breath and Bones is just sad and sadder—even when it’s funny. Famke starts out as a Danish orphan, already tubercular, with a real knack for arousing obsession in men she meets. She accepts this and most everything placidly throughout the book, moving from one disastrous situation to the next without question, but her liaison with an artist in Copenhagen appears to kindle a like obsession in her: she follows him to America and beyond to the West. When finally she finds him again, however, it becomes apparent that her obsession is narcissistic, for no sooner is she reunited with him than she’s bored with his sexual demands and tries to boost his creativity with an electric device used on her to cure her illness, which ends badly. There is plenty of lurid detail here to pique the interest—arsenic eating, creative uses for the blood she coughs up—and the style is one that many readers really relish, a flat, noir kind of view. For me, I just kept hoping she would do better, and it never happened.