Columba’s Bones: Darkland Tales

Written by David Greig
Review by Helen Johnson

Iona, 825 AD, and a gang of Vikings raids a Celtic monastery. In one brutal day, a multitude of characters is reduced to three survivors: an ageing Viking, a novice monk, and a peasant woman. As seasons sweep over the island, the pragmatic, brutal world-view of the Viking clashes against the other-worldliness of the monk. The Viking is baffled by a God who doesn’t defend himself but entranced by the brilliant, intricate illuminations in the book the monk produces. The monk agonises over his survival, believing his murdered brothers to be martyrs, but is horrified by Viking bloodshed. The woman, kept busy keeping the others fed, is untroubled by theology.

Everyone knows that the raiders will return, seeking the reliquary containing St Columba’s bones. But nobody knows its whereabouts, as the Abbot secretly buried it. To Vikings, it’s enough silver bullion to retire. To the monk, it’s miraculous power. To the woman, it’s irrelevant. The question is, how to survive when the Vikings return?

This is a jewel of a book, sparkling like the seas around the island. Each word vivifies the island, its natural life, and the inner lives of its inhabitants. Greig’s writing is fashionably free of speech marks, speech and thought merging, as the physical and spiritual merge on this Holy Island.

Spiritual angst is well researched but concise, and leavened by humour. The humour renders characters relateable, highlighting issues we all recognise. The ageing Viking, his belly spreading, struggles to run up the sandy beach. His ship-mates’ nicknames, expressed in modern English, are prosaic: Shorty, Bloodnose – although we never learn how Fuck-a-Whale got his name. Recommended for readers who enjoy seeing recognisable, fictitious humans bringing history to life.