Into Bones like Oil is the new novella by Australian Shirley Jackson Award-winner Kaaron Warren, and it warns of the danger of wishing ill on others (lest you wear your curse as a garment, as the psalm goes) and your guilt will haunt you like ghosts.
This is the first work I’ve read by Warren, although I’m clearly late to the party – she’s published five novels, seven short story collections, and has won and/or been shortlisted for several genre-fiction prizes, including the aforementioned Shirley Jackson Award for her novella Sky.
Into Bones like Oil is the story of grieving Dora, who arrives at The Angelsea, a rooming house near the beach, to find some peace and finally sleep. The house is also known as Shipwreck House for The Barlington, a ship which struck the ground at the nearby beach. The Angelsea’s residents are others like Dora – people who have a past they don’t like to discuss, people who cannot sleep because of their guilt. The Angelsea is also populated by ghosts – the ghosts of the dead crew of The Barlington – who talk through the residents’ while they sleep, resting conduits for the dead. Dora longs to hear from her two dead daughters, to ask for forgiveness, so that she and they may move on with their lives. Dora feels not only guilt for the death of her daughters but for the way she demonised her ex-husband, leading not only to his subsequent incarceration but to her daughters’ deaths.
You can probably tell by my plot summary, but Into Bones like Oil is bleak. The lives – past, present, and future – of the residents of The Angelsea, including Dora, are bleak. The Angelsea house itself, dirty and decaying, is bleak. The stories of the dead crew of The Barlington, voiced through the sleeping residents and painted on a giant canvas by one resident in particular, are bleak. The painting, “full of ghosts and shadows”, will never be finished says its painter, “There’ll always be more to add. The story keeps changing. The more we hear the more we know.”
There is one element of the story that I didn’t previously explain but alluded to in the headline. Roy, the owner of The Angelsea, is intent on understanding more and more of the story of the dead crew, as he tries to locate the captain, hoping to learn where “he’s hid the gold”. With the assistance of another resident, “the doctor”, Roy puts residents into a drug-induced sleep to use them as conduits for the ghosts as he hunts for more of the shipwreck’s story. Roy is exploiting the residents, telling them they will get great sleep at The Angelsea. If a resident can’t pay their rent, he gets paid in kind by making the resident go under with the help of one of the doctor’s injections. But everyone in The Angelsea appears to be exploited in one way or another.
Every resident of The Angelsea clearly has a dark backstory. If we knew what some of the residents had done, we would likely look on them as despicable human beings. Yet Warren, for the most part, makes us sympathise with them – these people live bleak and haunted lives. Warren has said that two of her previous stories set in a rooming house were “inspired by an intense one week stay in one about 25 years ago”. The rooming house in Into Bones like Oil is populated by characters she has collected since.
At 81 pages, Into Bones like Oil is short, and there isn’t much time to flesh out the book’s cast as anything more than snapshots of their characters, hints at their past. This is fine, as this almost reflects Dora’s own preference for not spending time with people, so she would only have these momentary snapshots of the people she was sharing her house with. But Dora’s character feels under-explored for we aren’t given enough opportunity to sympathise with her situation. As revelations about Dora’s past are exposed, they seem to pass by too quickly, in too unremarkable a fashion. The result is a book that itself is ghostlike – it doesn’t allow us to dig in too deeply, and it almost floats by like a dream. And the whole setting is dreamlike – we don’t get given any greater sense of the world around The Angelsea, other than occasional glimpses. How much will stay with me remains to be seen.
Into Bones like Oil is a strange and fleeting glimpse into the lives of people with guilts and burdens probably far greater than our own. We all have ghosts in our closets, and we all have things that keep us awake at night. But for some of us, those ghosts are too loud and ever-present to allow us to get anything resembling a restful night’s sleep. Into Bones like Oil warns us of the danger of wishing ill on others and spending too much of our time chasing ghosts, rather than trying to make amends and living the rest of our lives.