Remembering the Bones, by Frances Itani, is a poignant and thought-provoking book about a woman unexpectedly facing the end of her life, and how she comes to terms with it. Georgie is 80 years old, living in Canada, and about to take a trip she has been very much looking forward to. She shares a birthday with Queen Elizabeth, and is selected as one of 99 other people across the British "empire" with the same birthday to come to England to celebrate with the Queen. On her way to the airport, she loses control of her car and drives over a ravine. The car flips and lands at the bottom, and Georgie is thrown from the car, badly injured.
The book takes place as she is lying the ravine, trying to move and waiting to be rescued. Georgie starts to look back over her life, and in a linear fashion, tells her story. As a young girl, she was fascinated by Grey's Anatomy, and memorized most of the human body parts, including the bones. The chapters of Remembering the Bones are each named after different parts of the human skeleton, as Georgie lies in great pain and tries to survive without food, water or even a shawl to keep her warm during the chilly April nights she endures.
Georgie's life story is an unremarkable one. She grew up during the Depression to a wonderful mother and a distant father, enjoyed a close relationship with her sister Ally throughout her whole life, and eventually married Harry, a complicated man with a sad past. Her marriage was a happy one, though, which produced a daughter with whom Georgie is still close. Harry died a few years before the accident, and Georgie's grief over his death is still fresh when she tells her story.
Remembering the Bones is a compelling book. It took a little while to get going, but by page 80 I was hooked. Of course, I wanted to know whether Georgie would be rescued, but even more compelling was the way in which Itani narrated Georgie's life, her past, and the events and memories that make up a life. The writing was simple but powerful. In the end, Georgie wondered, what had she really made of her life? What was she worth? While others around her had had professions, she was really "just" a mother, a wife, and a daughter. It was very sad to hear her measure her life that way, especially after being privy to her innermost thoughts and aspirations at different times in her life.
Remembering the Bones reminded me of Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries, a book I read many, many years ago. Not because of the style in which the books were written, but because they both made me care tremendously about two women who appeared ordinary – perhaps forgettable – on the surface, but who were, deep down, as complicated and introspective and ambitious, in their own ways, as we all believe we are.
There are a number of passages that I noted throughout the book. Here's one, where Georgie's asking what a life is worth, and what she has learned:
Reciter of bones, lover of poems – memory has always been my long suit. Shelver of books. I once drew better-than-average lungs and a superior vena cava. A drawing that wasn't mailed. I created checkerboard sandwiches for family gatherings. I was daughter to Phil and Mr. Holmes, granddaughter to Grand Dan and my unmet grandfather, wife of Harry, mother of case, my child, and for a short time, little Matt.
Of course it all sounds easily dismissed when listed like that. But once you've gotten to know this smart, resourceful woman who has seen her share of sadness, war, death and grief – as well as joy and accomplishment -in her life, you know that these are just bones, just the skeleton of a biography.
I highly recommend Remembering the Bones and I am glad that I read it.