I’m going to begin by saying I’m very conflicted by this book. “Grind Your Bones to Dust” by Nicholas Day is devastatingly beautiful and achingly well-written with gorgeous prose and some terrifying characters, and yet, if I am honest, I’m still not sure if I liked it.
My feelings swing this way for a number of reasons — and not one of those is due to it being a bad book. It’s definitely not. But it is an incredibly raw and visceral book where disgustingly awful things happen to apparently good people for no other reason than, well, they just do. Characters caught in the crossfire of the main protagonists invariably do not get to walk away. These unfortunate souls do not die quietly on the pages, no, they are ripped to shreds in gleefully violent — yet masterfully poetic — ways. That powerful juxtaposition of using exquisite, almost lyrical storytelling to narrate appallingly dark events makes for a jarring experience.
The book itself is a novel in four parts, a tapestry of linked stories all converging on one end point which, although mostly positive, felt oddly unsatisfying. Perhaps because after all the excessive violence and pain the main character had inflicted, it felt too kind, too simple to end things the way it did. I had steeled myself by that point for a disgustingly bloody revenge, but that wasn’t quite delivered. I felt let down. I wanted more.
I also found that I often struggled to fully understand the character’s motivations — their behaviour frequently seemed erratic and apparently fuelled only by hatred, or possibly loss? — and as a consequence I didn’t like a single one of them. Maybe that was the point? I certainly don’t think any reader could possibly empathise with deranged serial killer James Hayte, who moved through the pages like a dark angel of death, guided by a possessed and psychotic raven.
But let’s step back a little bit. The title of the book is lifted from a quote by William Shakespeare from his play “Titus Andronicus”, a bloody revenge tragedy which in the Victorian era was widely shunned due to its excessive violence and graphic depictions of rape and cannibalism. Yup, I’ll admit to not liking that story much either. Maybe I should have thought a little more carefully about the possible comparisons between the two before I agreed to read and review.
While “Grind Your Bones…” is not exactly a straight Shakespearean homage, it could certainly be argued that it takes a large chunk of inspiration from his plays. With each section divided into specific Acts, and utilising powerful themes of revenge, murder, religion, love and insanity, there is little doubt that Day has succeeded in weaving a riveting and incredibly clever story, even if some parts of it do leave a somewhat shocking aftertaste. In “Titus…” the villainous character Aaron is unrepentant of his crimes, even up until his impending death, his only regret being that he had not done more evil in his life. It’s not too difficult to imagine James Hayte reading old Willy’s words and seeing Aaron as a powerful, if destructive, role model.
Points to note: Day does not hold back in the slightest in his descriptions of graphic violence. Castration, mutilation, sodomy and infanticide all feature here, making this book massively unsuitable for the faint of heart. His flesh-eating demon donkeys, however, were an absolute masterpiece. I wanted to read a lot more about them than I did of the human characters. Day manages to take a creature which is widely known for its calm and demure nature — a non-confrontational and docile creature — and turn it into a truly terrifying beast. Shrek sure wouldn’t have wanted to share his swamp with one of those vile nightmares.
Would I read Nicholas Day again? Absolutely. My personal feelings for this story do not in any way detract from how talented and unique a writer he is. Would I recommend this book to others? Yes, but with a strong warning: this is an incredibly well-written book and I cannot fault Day’s attention to detail and his mastery of words, but it will more than likely mess with your head and it is not an easy read.
Bravo, Mr. Day, I am both thoroughly disgusted and greatly impressed.