Friday, February 04, 2011

The Bone Cage

Edmonton: NeWest, c2007.
235 p.

I read The Bone Cage a few weeks ago now, but haven't had much of a chance to sit down and really think about it. But, I do want to share my impressions before Canada Reads begins, as this was the only Canada Reads choice I've read, not really because of the event, but even so... at least now I know one of the books well enough to follow along with the debates!

But on to the book. This is a novel set in an area of Canada I know quite well (the characters drive through my parents' small town at one point) but in life surroundings that I only know a minuscule amount about -- the lives of Olympic athletes. (Disclosure: I do have a cousin who was an Olympic athlete and I knew that her training was the focus of her life, but honestly, we never talked about it much, just as my day-to-day education and work were never discussed much)

The Bone Cage has two main characters: Sadie, a swimmer, and Digger, a wrestler. Their stories converge about halfway through the book, and although they seem so different, their friendship -- when it arrives -- seems quite natural and almost inevitable. Both characters are strong individuals, focused on what it will take to get them to their dream of competing in the Olympics. They are both coming up to the Olympic trials that will give them a place or take it away forever; they both know that they are at the tail end of possibility in their athletic lives, old in their late twenties.

While I have next to no interest in sports or organized events like the Olympics, this book drew me in and kept me fascinated. Abdou creates strong individual characters, the main characters of Sadie and Digger for sure, but also supporting characters like Sadie's coach or Digger's friend Fly. Each is unique, and speaks and acts like an individual -- there were no characters who could be mistaken for another via indistinguishable dialogue.

There is also a strong element of the physical world in this book, appropriately enough for a cast of characters who are all about their physical abilities. The sensory descriptions are amazing; for example, Sadie has to get up in the dark, very early, and struggle through the cold, dark and snow to the pool for practice. You can feel her dragging herself out from under the covers into the cold air of her room, coaxing her cold car to make it to the pool, and then pulling on a clammy swimsuit and slipping into the water. You can almost feel the water lapping at her face and hear the particular echo of splashing and voices in a cavernous indoor swimming pool. When Digger is wrestling, Abdou points out the sweatiness, the crazy pre-match rituals of sweating down their weights or of blocking out all sensory input by putting a towel over their heads to focus in on their inner strength. Or the slippery nature of the wrestling mats, the noise in the room, the rank smell of their discarded clothes afterward. It is rather amusing to me that when I think of a scene in the book, I'll often smell or hear something rather than have a simple visual in my head.

Sadie was also an English major in university, and from time to time literary references and quotes float into the story. This was the only thing I found a bit jarring at times. I wasn't sure where Sadie was suddenly coming from, and felt a little discombobulated. Still, one minor quibble for such a great read.

The story follows these two in their quest to reach the Olympics and what happens when one of them is sidelined. How can two people so focused cope when one needs something more than a physical quest? What is the value of such intense focus, one which excludes anything extraneous? And what do people with such a particular goal do once that goal is no longer an option? All these questions and more are raised in this book, and we are never given a straight-ahead, absolute answer -- instead, we are given people grappling with these issues and the complexity involved, and trusted to find our own answers.

I enjoyed this book, and found plenty to make a reader think. It feels very Canadian in its setting and in its ability to portray the expectations on athletes like these characters, without falling into patriotic blather about the importance of sport. They are simply people living their particular life. I never thought I'd read and enjoy a novel about Olympians but, I'll admit it, I liked this book, even the sports parts ;) Good luck to the author & her defender, Georges Laraque, in next week's Canada Reads debates.


  1. With the Olympics coming up here next year we are an even more sports focussed nation than usual at the moment. I think this is a book (coming from a sports mad family) I might enjoy. I'm off to see if there's a UK edition of it.

  2. I am looking forward to giving this a try at some point. I used to be on the ball for Canada Reads, but too much going on at the moment!

  3. Annie - I hope there is a UK edition, this is a thought provoking read about the idea of the Olympics as much as personal dedication to sport.

    Kailana - I never usually read anything for Canada Reads, and follow along rather randomly, but this one was at the library and I thought I'd give it a was worth the effort!

  4. You've done such a fine job of encapsulating this novel. And I agree, just as I hope readers don't miss Terry Fallis' The Best Laid Plans because they think it's "just a novel about politics", I hope they don't overlook The Bone Cage because it's "just a novel about sports". The characters in this one are memorable indeed.

    I wonder if the reason that some parts of Sadie seemed to leap out a little awkwardly, is that she has pushed back a lot of her other interests to focus on one pursuit, so that she, herself, is a little thrown-off by everything-other-than-that-preoccupation?

  5. BuriedinPrint - thanks...I too hope that people don't take one quick look and dismiss a novel for its most apparent theme, sports or politics or for that matter, a writing life itself.

    Good points about Sadie. She seems so very entirely a swimmer that anything else stood out oddly. ;)


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