Our families are often the people who hurt us the most.

This is certainly true for Nell Churcher, who, despite being attacked by an obsessive ‘Golden Bones’ fan when she was was in her early teens – a fan who believed they needed to carve out Nell’s pelvic bone to resurrect a fictional character called Elinore – continues to be more hurt by her family’s inability to comprehend her. As always, Kelly deftly captures the true nature of family: the people we know best may be those we despise the most, and it may turn out that we still don’t know the depths they can plumb…

What’s it about?

For fifty years, Frank Churcher’s family has been defined by a beautiful treasure hunt tale he authored as a young artist: ‘The Golden Bones’. A tale of obsession gave rise to an army of obsessive fans and Frank’s daughter, Nell, (who, much to her disgust, was christened ‘Eleanor’, giving her a dangerous connection to the Lady Elinore in her father’s creation.) has long stood separate from her kin, determined to make her own way in life.

Now, Frank has an announcement to make and a surprise to reveal, so the Churchers gather together for the grand reveal: the location of the missing bone. However, some secrets are meant to stay buried, and the reveal soon veers dangerously off course, unveiling other secrets the family have kept hidden all these years…

What’s it like?

After a shocking prologue, ‘The Skeleton Key’ is a slow burner in terms of plot, but is a consistently beguiling tale that gradually paints a tale of two intertwined families, the Churchers and the Lalleys. Nell despises her parents and refers to them by their first names, and even Dominic and Rosaleen, Nell’s brother and sister-in-law, decide early on in their relationship to live their lives by deciding what their respective parents would do, then doing the opposite. Clearly, the children don’t dote on their parents.

The reader quickly learns about Frank’s adultery, Cora’s tendency to absent herself from reality and Lal’s alcoholism, but the real shocks are saved for the final third of the book, where we learn what Bridget knows and the long held family hatreds begin to burn ever brighter…

Final thoughts

Kelly perfectly captures the difficult dynamics dysfunctional families can share. Nell is simultaneously appalled by and protective of her father; Dominic feels the need to protect his ineffectual mother; and sensible Rosaleen turns out to be the classic rebellious teenager; but all of this feels absolutely convincing, sad and inevitable, given the characters involved.

Similarly, Kelly shows the way perfectly ‘normal’ people can do and compartmentalise heinous actions. There are no psychopaths here, though if one character’s complete actions were described independently of the rest of the narrative, I think they would certainly risk attracting that label!

I was surprised by Frank’s behaviour in the final chapters and wondered whether Kelly’s final, understated reveal somehow had more to do with his decision than anything else. (I found myself re-reading the relevant chapters as obsessively as one of the story’s Bonehunters might!) Other than this unexpected development, I loved the way the whole story developed and gradually revealed just how far a family will go to protect their own.

Having previously thoroughly enjoyed Kelly’s ‘He Said / She Said‘ and ‘The Burning Air‘, I look forward to reading more of her books.

‘The Skeleton Key’,
Erin Kelly
2023, Hodder, paperback