Books

Denise Inge
A Tour of Bones

Denise Inge spent a large part of her short and adventurous life pondering the theology and poetry of a little-known 17th century Anglican divine, Thomas Traherne. In books such as Happiness and Holiness and Wanting Like a God, she aimed to show how the flowery prose of the so-called “poet of felicity” had contemporary relevance.

In this memoir, Inge has attempted a more personal exploration of the subjects of her scholarly interests in theology and the Christian spiritual life. It begins with her discovery that the house in which she lives in Worcester, England, contains a cellar in which lie the skeletal remains of hundreds of people. She descends into that cellar with her husband and children, guided by a sputtering candle and what another reviewer has described as her own considerable “magpie curiosity”.

Curiosity and what Inge herself describes as “unflinching mettle” compel her to undertake a tour of four European charnel houses. She wants, she says, to face that king of fears: the one that resides in everyone’s heart, that sits there “quiet as cat’s feet”, “heavy as a tomb”. As it turns out, she needs to become less frightened, too, because she subsequently learns that she has an inoperable tumour.

Four of the six chapters of Inge’s memoir are devoted to the charnel house visits in Czermna, Sedlec, Hallstatt and Naters. In them the lucidity, indeed the luminosity, of the first chapter flickers and fades like the candle flame. Three of them are an unsatisfactory blend of travelogue, learned theological disquisition and personal rumination held together not by thematic coherence but by all-too-frequent text-break hinges. Inge abandons the Mennonite in her that values plainness and adopts a stream-of-consciousness style that is shamelessly rich in question marks and adjectives. At least half of this book is Hector and the Search for Happiness, without the happiness.

The charnel house chapters were written before Inge realised how very ill she would become. The growing realisation of the imminence of death could explain the unevenness in the tone of the book that, happily, in its final chapters recovers some of its early promise. In these, Inge’s voice is as beautiful and clear and natural as the woods in the poetry of the beloved Robert Frost of her American girlhood.  MG

Bloomsbury, 224pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 15, 2014 as "Denise Inge, A Tour of Bones ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: MG