By Tim Bowling. Gaspereau Press, 304 pp, $27.95, softcover
Two trenches, both containing bones. One cuts into the volcanic stone of the Alberta badlands, where the remains of giant aquatic lizards have lain for millenniums; the other runs through the muck of Flanders, reeking with the charred and rotting fragments of men and mules. Poised above the first, a paleontologist tortures himself with phantoms even as his blood is consumed by avid mosquitoes; crouched in the latter, his former assistant devours scholarly dinosaur books while the guns roar and the rats creep in.
Based on the true story of Charles Sternberg, the visionary fossil collector who found his El Dorado among the Drumheller hoodoos, The Bone Sharps is both a historical novel, rich in period detail, and a poignant meditation on dreams. We learn about the proto-paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, Sternberg's mentor; about genocide on the American frontier; and about the horrors of the First World War. But Tim Bowling is on even firmer ground when delineating his characters' inner lives, which are as tortured and complex as the historical circumstances that surround them.
Coincidentally, I came to The Bone Sharps immediately after rereading Timothy Findley's The Wars, which undoubtedly shaped my response to the war-story aspect of Bowling's tale. Split between love story, fossil quest, and combat memoir, The Bone Sharps can't match the sense of mounting horror Findley achieved in his 1977 masterpiece, and Bowling's postmodern toggling between 1876, 1916, and 1975 leaves some aspects of his narrative sketchy. The conflict between Cope and his archrival, Professor March, is frequently alluded to but remains ambiguous; so, too, is the ultimate fate of Sternberg's assistant, Scott Cameron, who leaves the bone beds of Alberta for the killing fields of Belgium.
At times, The Bone Sharps seems almost unfinished, but this only sets its more successful passages–primarily those focusing on Sternberg–in sharper relief. The collector's early expeditions are outlined with hallucinatory intensity, as is his near-suicidal shame over having been absent in the field when his beloved daughter died of consumption. Even if the bones of his story don't quite knit, there's no denying that Bowling knows his way around the heart.