"People get it wrong when they talk about innocence," says Evie, the narrator of Alexia Casale's tremendous first novel. "They think it's something to do with ignorance about the facts of sex and all the nasty things that happen in the world. But facts don't change people: it's understanding how the facts feel that does."
Analysing Hamlet for English GCSE (Evie has little patience for the Danish prince's dithering) is nothing compared to the self-reflection she needs to deal with the emotional fallout from abuse. Evie leads us towards the heart of her darkness via narrative techniques that echo her fragile state of mind. Drawn inexorably to her past, she is nevertheless unable to look at it directly; instead, she protects her secrets like a dragon protects its hoard. She constantly withholds information, prepared to seed clues, but won't commit to full disclosure. The reader, like Evie, must make sense of her early years using only those fragments that rise from the deep – and those she can bring herself to share. "Some things should never be said … If you name the mist … you turn it solid, into something that no one should ever hold in their hands."
The novel opens with Evie waking from an operation on her damaged ribcage. When the surgeon presents her with a piece of her rib, she makes a necklace from it, carving the pendant into the shape of a dragon. For years she has been surrounded by loving, decent people (against whom she constantly judges herself): her protective adoptive parents; a fun-loving uncle; supportive friends; and an English teacher who seems to understand the feeling of "deep, dull, constant pain". What she suffered, however, remains buried. Evie gives short shrift to people who think they can advise a victim on something they haven't themselves experienced. Her two counsellors "got it as wrong as people can get it". It is the eponymous dragon who leads Evie back to where she does not want to go – and for a purpose yet to be determined.
This is neither fantasy nor magic realism. Beautifully evoked, the bone dragon is willed into existence by a tormented soul in need of help. He moves, says Evie, "with sinuous grace, winding down my arm and sitting on the back of my hand, tail curled around my little finger, possessive and warm". His character is imperious, his utterances cryptic. He tells her she is meant to heal, that "the keystone of our contract is that you should only understand as much as is to your benefit. You must trust."
In a series of haunting sequences, girl and dragon escape into the moonlit Fens. "Are you nocturnal?" Evie asks. "Let us simply say that many things are easier at night," the dragon replies. Images of cleansing fire and deep, quiet water abound, the night and swirling mists working as a perfect metaphor in the context of Evie's quest.
Weaving the central story with subplots involving bullying and a fatal car accident, Casale barely missteps. Dark, with unexpected twists and a strong – if disturbing – ending, the narrative has a relentless emotional charge. "I have come to you so that you will be free," says the bone dragon, in an outstanding debut that vividly portrays the power and fragility of the human heart and mind.