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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

A Baby’s Bones by Rebecca Alexander

February 1, 2019

Titan Press:  London
2018 (PB)

The archaeological premise of Rebecca Alexander’s atmospheric thriller, A Baby’s Bones, is simple enough.  The owners of historically significant Bramble Cottage– which in the past had been part of the extensive Banstock Manor, dating back to medieval times on the Isle of Wight– wish to build an addition to the structure and are thereby required to have an archaeological survey conducted in order to comply with zoning regulations.  County archaeologist Sage Westfield and her two person crew—PhD candidate Elliott Robinson and undergraduate Steph Beatson—undertake the project only to discover the skeletal remains of an adult and a newborn within the fill of an abandoned 16th century well which is in the building addition’s footprint.

Sage shares the information, which will require further compliance excavation and greater expense, with the owners of Bramble Cottage—the over-wrought and highly-strung Judith Bassett and husband James, who is in the late stages of a losing battle with cancer.  She is very unhappy with the project’s turn of events and confesses to a dread of the cottage—fearing that it might be haunted– since they recently purchased it.

Sage and her small crew soldier on with the excavation, discovering carved inscriptions on the well’s walls, and seeking the aid of the local vicar, the recently widowed Nick Haydon of St. Mark’s Banstock Church, to provide a proper burial for the remains when their research is complete.  The novel provides an exemplary model of archaeological research that extends well beyond shovel and trowel fieldwork.  Sage meshes her research by seeking out information on the history of Bramble Cottage by interviewing a previous owner—who also sensed the sinister atmosphere of the dwelling —as well as enlisting the talents and resources of the local librarian and members of the local historical society.  Marshalling these resources, Sage is able to piece together an increasingly lurid history of Banstock Manor and Bramble Cottage that dates back to the age of the Tudors, with tales of witchcraft, alchemy, the dark arts and a servant whose illegitimate baby was claimed by Satan.  Sage also calls upon the expertise of colleague Felix Guichard, a social anthropologist expert on folk beliefs and local mythologies, to help her decipher the inscriptions on the wall of the well.

As Sage proceeds in wrapping up the project, external forces seem to be at work to complicate matters:  Vicar Nick Haydon is besieged by increasingly vile and threatening phone calls; a mysterious figure is caught on “nanny cam” footage invading the bedroom of Chloe Bassett, the young daughter of Judith and James; Sage finds a “hex doll” in her automobile; and all the while the malevolent atmosphere that permeates Bramble Cottage seems more pronounced.    But the situation reaches a breaking point when, as the archaeology survey officially draws to a close, Sage discovers the body of Steph Beatson, her student assistant, in the same well they had been excavating.  It is no accident; Steph has been murdered, and the curse of Bramble Cottage seems to have taken on new and even more grotesque dimensions. The bodies in the well are separated by centuries but seem to be inextricably linked together.

Sage’s world is crumbling around her—she is pregnant (with no father in the picture) and there are health complications; her parents’ lives seem to be collapsing; her affection for the young vicar appears unrequited.  And now her student assistant and friend is dead and a crazed killer seems to be on the prowl.

Rebecca Alexander has crafted a wonderfully compelling thriller.  It is atmospheric without being cliché-ridden; the characters, both main and secondary, are beautifully rendered and fully realized; and the portrayal of the archaeological enterprise is first rate. Four trowels.