3 stars. Interesting premise, poor delivery.
“It seemed proof that fear could open doors to other worlds, that the greater the fear we produced in ourselves, the greater the power it gave us to tap into those worlds.”
Bone Deep was a mixed bag for me. It had a lot of promise, as I went into the novel thinking it was going to be dark and atmospheric. Instead, it struggled with the kind of story it wanted to tell, fluctuating between an almost paranormal kind of mystery and saccharine romance.
The beginning of the novel hinted at a dark, complex backstory between the primary narrator, Paige, and her former friend, Emily, setting up an intense relationship between the two. This darkness carried through until about the middle of the novel, ending around the time Paige begins to form her intense feelings!!! for the other narrator, Jalen. Their “relationship” really strained the story and took me out of the moment several times, as I couldn’t get over the fact that Paige was melting over a boy while her former best friend was mysteriously missing, possibly even dead. With that being said, Paige’s character was kind of annoying to begin with so I’m not really surprised that her character got distracted so easily.
Moving on. I wanna focus on what I thought was done well–Jalen Yazzi. The novel is primarily told in first person by Paige, but there are several chapters where it is narrated by Jalen. The reader gets an interesting glimpse into his life, as he is someone who describes himself as being “divided in half by blood”. Jalen is part Navajo, part white, and his ethnic identity is an essential component of the plot. I won’t give away too much, but there are some arguably paranormal aspects to the story that revolve around Navajo mythology. Considering how much of the story takes place at an ancient Native American ruin, it only makes sense for the Navajo people and their mythology to play a part in the novel.
Jalen’s narration also sheds light on Navajo people and the issues they face in the modern day, especially the high rate of alcoholism among Native American people in general. His uncle struggles with alcoholism and Jalen’s respect and sympathy towards his uncle was admirable, showing the goodness of his personality and the complexity of the addiction.
“You love them, but you also fear them because when they’re drinking, there are no filters–only intense, dark emotions. Hateful things come out of their mouths, words that shoot like bullets and hurt all the worse because you can’t shield yourself from the truth in them.”
I hate that I even have to say this, but I appreciate the tasteful and humanizing approach that O’Brien had with writing the Native Americans in the story. As a people, they are all too often overlooked or dehumanized within media today, so Jalen’s perspective is really important. I just wish we could’ve gotten more of his narration instead of Paige.
The end of the novel, with all the mystery culminating in the inevitable and violent reveal, was absurd to me. It read strangely, like it was almost a dark comedy, and not something super serious and engaging. I couldn’t help but laugh a few times at the execution of it all. Following the grand reveal, the events weren’t really discussed among the main characters, which was really jarring. The plot shifted completely and focused exclusively on Paige and Jalen and their feelings, which felt so wacky in the context. This really threw the whole mystery-thriller aspect of the novel off for me.
Overall, this could have been a really good book if Paige focused less on her feelings for Jalen and more on the disappearance of her best friend. The romance was the biggest flaw, as it weighed the story down and watered down the seriousness of the events. It wasn’t a terrible read though. If you don’t really mind cliché love and are interested in a YA mystery with interesting mythology and diversity, then this will probably be a good book to read. O’Brien is clearly a good writer and knows what she’s doing. I just wish she could have toned down the insta-love.
(Note: There’s a sexual assault scene early on in the story so I wanted to make that known in case it could be triggering for anyone to read.)
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for sending me an eARC in exchange for an honest review.