By Angie Abdou
Angie Abdou’s debut novel The Bone Cage, places us squarely in the world of two dedicated athletes. With her powerful imagery and her gift for the smallest detail, their daily routines feel very real. We sweat down with Digger as he prepares for weigh-in and we swim countless lengths in the pool with Sadie. Although the demanding and often harsh practices these two must endure would be alien to most people, Abdou draws us in to such a degree that it all feels normal and matter-of-fact as we fall into their patterns.
Each chapter alternates between the two main characters, Sadie Jorgenson, a 26-year-old swimmer, and Digger (Tom) Stapleton, a 28-year-old wrestler. Both have qualified and are preparing for the 2004 Olympics. They are living with their parents during this time and there is a sense that their lives are “on hold” for now, as practising their sport occupies them completely.
The picture of Sadie is more fully developed than Digger’s. She is a bit of a loner and is quite introspective. We learn about how she feels, how she sometimes uses literature to get through her practices, memorizing poetry or rewriting the classics, or recalling quotations that seem apt to her situation. She seems very real and understandable. She displays one of the few strong emotional bonds in the novel, that between her and her grandmother. They have a loving, supportive relationship, unencumbered by expectations. When her grandmother dies, Sadie is devastated, and mourns her loss physically. Her body collapses and refuses to follow its usual pattern. She sleeps for days, needing time to recuperate emotionally; that can only happen when she is strong again physically.
Digger’s portion of the story is interesting because of his sport. It is fascinating to learn about some of the techniques and strategies used in wrestling. But he is not as fully drawn as Sadie and although he is a hard worker, he seems young for his age. Neither of them has time for any other career or occupation, and their social life is almost non-existent. They are very focused on themselves. But it is their single-mindedness that has brought them this far and which allows them to survive the physical demands on their body.
One of the powerful aspects of the book is Abdou’s concrete imagery. There is an immediacy to her visceral, graphic details that allows us to feel the athletes’ pain or exhaustion. Occasionally, too, we are given a glimpse of satisfaction, even contentment that is as much physical as emotional. There are a couple of such instances early on when Sadie is swimming. The constant repetition of her strokes and kicks become mesmerizing, like a mantra, and nothing exists for awhile but her body and its repetitive movements as she travels back and forth from one end of the pool to the other. There is a feeling of calm, almost meditation, and Sadie is in total harmony with her body:
One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe. She slides easily into the rhythm of her stroke … up one side, back on the other …The even splashing of her own arms, her own feet, soothes her. Her breathing fills her ears…. herself into herself. She doesn’t think. She acts. Her body knows the movements. (29)
With this fleeting picture, Abdou shows us why the drudgery and the pain and the routine of being so dedicated to a sport might all be worthwhile.