"Columba's Bones" by David Greig is the best novel I've read in some considerable time. They say that good things come in small packages and if you want a perfect demonstration of that, then look no further. "Columba's Bones" is short enough to realistically consume in one substantial sitting and the story is so compelling that I suspect a lot of readers will find that's what they've done, even if that wasn't their intention when sitting down and opening the book.
The rear flap of the dust jacket reveals that author David Greig has made his name primarily as a playwright and that this is his first novel. The second of those facts is much more surprising than the first. "Columba's Bones" is a highly accomplished and polished novel that displays a real sureness of touch on the part of its author. At the same time, it would be very easy to imagine it being performed as a play, though the open spaces of the island of Iona, or "I" as it was known at the time, have such a central role in the story that a stage set constructed by the reader's imagination might be hard to match within the confines of a theatre.
What really makes reading this novel a very special experience is the depth of the characterisation. The story revolves around three central characters - four if you count the island it is set on - with smaller parts for others. The central characters are each in their own way very alien to modern readers, yet each is drawn so beautifully and convincingly that you have no difficulty seeing and understanding the world they live in through their eyes. This really is a remarkable book that can be recommended to anyone looking for a really good read.
But what's it about? I'll let the publisher's description take the strain in describing the story itself: "In a bloody, brutal raid, Abbot Blathmac is slain on the steps of his monastery for refusing to give away the location of the sacred relics of St Columba, the missionary who first brought Christianity to Scotland. Following a night of rampage and mayhem, one Viking wakes up the next morning to find himself alone, hungover, and abandoned by his crewmates. With only his wits, he must survive long enough not only to rejoin his Viking comrades, but also to find the location of the elusive relics that brought him here in the first place. Rooted in the real history of Iona and its early monks, Columba's Bones is an utterly unique and thrilling read, exploring the clash of early Christianity and paganism, and expanding into a sharp, witty meditation on philosophy, redemption, shame, violence, love, transcendence and reality."