Book Review: The Shape of Bones by Daniel Galera (translated by Alison Entrekin)

American cover art for The Shape of Bones*

  Bad Blood

When Hermano was very young, say ten years old, he would ride his bicycle as fast as he could through the dangerous hilly streets of Esplanada, his Brazilian hometown. Once, after what had become a fairly typical occurrence: a painful and bloody wipe out on an unyielding macadam surface, Hermano wipes away the tears to spy an old abuela tottering his way. "That blood there, you know, that's bad blood," she explains after assessing his wounded knee. "You know there's good blood and bad blood don't you? Bad blood is that dark blood coming out there, it's dirty blood. It runs just under the surface... Good blood is different, it's lighter in color, almost pink, and it runs through the big veins... That bad blood there... (Y)ou've got to let it out, because then your body will make more of the good blood, the clean sort that runs through the inside, to replace the bad blood, understand?"

Grandma's advice to young Hermano, as contrived as it sounds, turns out to be the central theme (both in a literal and a figurative sense) of Daniel Galera's latest novel, The Shape of Bones. As Hermano reaches adolescence, his quest to rid himself of that bad blood intensifies. The streets and football pitches of Esplanada are a proving ground for him and his crew. One day while playing a pickup game of soccer, Hermano decides to stand up to the stocky, brutish kid they call Bonobo and in so doing provokes a mini rivalry which will lead to a calamitous series of events. Such experiences formulate our adult perspectives.

Skip ahead some years: Hermano, married now with a child, is leaving early one morning to meet up with a work aquaintance. They intend to scale the rock face of a Bolivian peak called Cerro Bonete. Galera alternates chapters between the adolescent and the grown up, showing us cause and effect. Whereas, Hermano tears around on his BMX competing with his fellow daredevils in a dangerous game to see who can cycle the fastest down a particularly treacherous hill, the adult Hermano still seems to have something to prove, only more so to himself this time. He is still trying to rid himself of that bad blood.

Galera's writing is perspicacious enough and Entrekin's translation is seamless, however I needed a bit more on why the young Hermano acts as he does. No one is a masochist for no reason. For this reason the book felt somewhat artificial. If only the author had probed to the heart of the matter, the well written and poignant ending would have packed more of a wallop. If we only knew why that advice from the old woman in his youth should have been so important to Hermano; why does he feel the need to clear out the bad blood to feel clean again? What was the germ than began his extreme life of recklessness? What makes him feel good about suffering? Galera could have hinted at why, but on the other hand it could be that in the barrios of Brazil these facts don't bear repeating. Maybe all that matters is the resolution.

~3.5 stars