In Naming the Bones, the first book I’ve read by Louise Welsh, university lecturer Dr Murray Watson takes a sabbatical from work in order to research a new book on the life of Archie Lunan, a little-known Scottish poet. Lunan drowned in a sailing accident decades earlier and his death is still surrounded by mystery. Murray’s investigations take him from his home in Glasgow to the Isle of Lismore – where he learns more about Lunan’s life and death than he could ever have imagined and begins to ask himself the question: does knowing what an artist is like as a person really add to our appreciation and understanding of their work – or is the work best left to stand on its own?
Although I did end up enjoying this book, it wasn’t really what I was expecting at all – from the blurb and the quotes on the back of the book it sounded like it would be a fast-paced thriller. Unfortunately I really struggled to get through the first half of the book – it was very slow and there were too many sub-plots that didn’t seem to add much to the story – Murray’s affair with his head of department’s wife, for example, and his estrangement from his brother. But I did like Murray as a character – I found him a likeable and wryly funny narrator who seemed to stumble from one disaster to another – and I wanted to find out what had happened to Archie Lunan, so I was happy to keep reading.
In the second half of the book, when Murray arrived on the island of Lismore, the pace started to pick up and the story became very compelling. The island with its ruined castle, abandoned cottages and ancient broch provided an atmospheric setting for this part of the novel. Welsh increased the tension with every chapter, threw in some twists and surprises (though nothing too unbelievable) and left me feeling satisfied with the way the book had ended.