Excerpt from Breath and Bones by Susann Cokal, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Breath and Bones

A Novel

by Susann Cokal

Breath and Bones
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  • First Published:
    May 2005, 416 pages
    May 2006, 400 pages

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For all their dissatisfactions, each of Albert’s works was dense with that sort of detail and keen observation, labored over inch by inch. It was that labor that made their eventual destruction so heartbreaking to Famke. She once suggested that he sketch a rough outline first, to get an impression of the scene, but he reacted with horror:"Impressions are dangerous to a true artist," he said. "You speak like a Frenchwoman—you know, over there a man fills five or six canvases a day with impressions. The Brotherhood know that only in precise details is there truth. It is the difference between a tramp and a good workman—impressions are a passing pleasure; patience and industry make art. "

And yet, thought Famke, Albert was remarkably impatient. Just now he was wearing that gray heel of bread down to his fingers, and crumbs were flying everywhere. The page before him was a smear of pale blue. It was time for her to do or say something, lest he succumb to self-criticism and despair.

She covered the chamberpot and put it back in its place. Still naked, thinking how best to distract him, she climbed into bed and buried herself up to the eyelids in blankets, then looked to the window. The sunlight was already waning, but it showed the roofs had grown dirty, the day’s warmth turning the castle ruins from a palace of snow back into mere rubble.

"Do you think Christiansborg burns to a purpose?" she asked. "Do you think it is destroyed because it is not perfect?"

Albert glanced out the window, too, and what he saw there seemed to calm him. "No. "He picked up his brush again. "The Danes do not behave that way. Not since the Vikings, at any rate. "

Famke thought that despite all his claims to record the details of real things as he saw them, Albert ignored the imperfect world-as-it-was, the one where even saints and goddesses were subject to violence and had much in common with the sailors and Ludere in the street. Up here, in the room Albert so loved (though Famke suspected he could afford one much nicer), he blinked and scratched his way toward a better world in which the ice was clean and whole, the women powerful despite their vulnerability.

The sheets now felt as warm and soft as bathwater; Famke slid down them like a happy eel and tried to imagine a world she might create if invited to do so. She had only the dreamiest sense of what it might be:warm, yes, but with jigsaw-puzzle blocks of ice and flowers and pickled herring and definitely Albert. The thick smell of linseed oil and the bite of turpentine, rainbows of paint under nails and across unexpected stretches of skin. There would be no farmwork, no housework, no church services; only art. She would never cough. Instead she would stand in the middle of this world, or lie in it, perpetually still, with her clothes off and her eyes lost in Albert’s.

It would be this life.

"New pots for old!" sang a tinker passing down the street below.

Famke looked up and suddenly the light was gone; even the keenest eye couldn’t stretch it any further. Albert sighed and put brush and palette down on the rough board table, where Famke would clean them later. Wiping his hands on what he must have thought was a rag—a camisole she’d left to dry over the back of a chair—he looked from the easel to the bed, from pencil drawing to paint sketch to the real, living girl watching him and trying not to cough.

"I think it is going to be . . . . " He paused, searching for the right word: "beautiful. "

It was an ordinary word after all, but nonetheless exotic to her, for he said it in English. Famke felt a rush of hot feeling—not the ordinary fever of her disease but a new kind that Albert had passed on to her, a kind that felt hotter and stronger each time it came over her. She threw the covers off and held out her arms to him, unconsciously splaying her hands in much the same way as Nimue did.

Excerpted from Breath and Bones© Susann Cokal. Published by Unbridled Books. All rights reserved

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