Rust and Bone by Craig Davidson review

Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing Craig Davidson’s 2005 short story collection Rust and Bone. Some people will recognise the title as two of the stories featured here very loosely inspired the film of the same name, starring Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts. Unlike the film, all the stories are located in Ontario with the majority in St. Catharines, and characters pop up in more than one narrative. It is a very dark collection, featuring sex addicts, prizefighters and alcoholics.

Davidson’s prose, particularly his descriptions of landscape, is beautiful. The world these characters inhabit begins to reflect their own thoughts and feelings which gives the reader a deeper understanding of them. His use of metaphors was also very imaginative and again told us more about our narrators. The metaphors and similes weren’t trite or didn’t make any sense when pulled apart, but were very imaginative and evocative. You were given a real sense of time and place, and it was easy to picture the scenes in your head.

Davidson also excels is in his ability to write family dynamics. My two favourite stories here are ‘The Rifleman’ and ‘The Apprentice’s Guide to Modern Magic’ which both deal with the relationship between fathers and their children. In the first the father is an alcoholic and in the second he abandons his children one night while performing a magic trick. Davidson approaches these topics in a very sensitive and humane way. In ‘The Rifleman’ you cannot help but feel sorry for both the father (who is our narrator) and son who have drifted apart because of this addiction. You see how proud he is of his kid but his need to drink leads him to behaving erratically. As the narrative goes on we see him consume more and more, so not only does he become an unreliable narrator but also an unpredictable, volatile one. I think by placing the reader in the father’s shoes, Davidson makes him more sympathetic as you witness first-hand his thoughts and feelings.

In ‘The Apprentice’s Guide to Modern Magic’ the narrative is told by the daughter, policewoman Jess Heinz. You are therefore able to see the opposite perspective from ‘The Rifleman’, and watch how their father’s disappearance affects them growing up. The characterisation in this story is really well done as you watch these two siblings come to terms with the past and move forward with their lives. The mystery of the father’s disappearance is a mere catalyst for the story, rather than the primary plot which focuses on the children. I really enjoyed this story and wished it was longer or even a novel as I really connected with Jess and her brother.

However, there were some aspects in Rust and Bone that made me uncomfortable. There are several scenes of violence which go into graphic detail, a couple of which include animals. I’ll admit I found some of the descriptions a bit squeamish but understandable in their context, such as the two stories involving boxers and ‘A Mean Utility’ which focuses on a man training his dogs to fight in illegal competitions. Unpleasant? Yes, but the stories were ugly and unpleasant in plot and tone so the violence felt a part of them. But there is one scene of animal abuse which occurs and I felt it was totally unnecessary. The scene just felt plonked in for shock value alone, and I was revolted at the character involved. Any kind of interest I had in him was gone and really wanted to put the collection down at that point.

Another factor that I didn’t like was the objectification of women. Most of the narrators in Rust and Bone are men and the majority of them make comments about women. The story ‘Friction’ is slightly more justified in its depiction of women, as our narrator is a sex addict who becomes a porn actor to indulge in his addiction. His obsession with the female body is an integral part of the narrative. However, I felt the other stories unnecessarily commented on women and their bodies. I remember one scene in particular, found in ‘Rocket Ride’, where our narrator meets another character and talks about her breasts which are hidden beneath a blouse. All I could think was: why?! She was clothed! What was the point of that remark? It pulled me right out of the story and in a similar vein to the violence I did want to stop reading right there and then.

I can see why some people would like Rust and Bone. Davidson is good at characterisation and I think he conveys the struggle with addiction, either alcohol or sex, very well. He has also obviously researched those topics depicted in the collection, as he writes about them very eloquently despite how disturbing they are. But the unnecessary violence and objectification did wear me down and stopped this from being a great collection. There are quotes from Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis on the blurb, and I think if you like those authors or just gritty, dark fiction in general you might like this. If not then perhaps give Rust and Bone a pass, or try and find a couple of stories from it elsewhere to try out first.

Rust and Bone is published by Picador and you can find more information here.

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