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by William Bell

There’s a fine line between a plot whose meticulously wrought structure and thematic symmetries are so artfully orchestrated that they feel organic and essential, and a plot whose design comes across as heavyhanded and neatly pat. Sadly, the latter is the case in William Bell’s latest YA novel, Stones.

In his award-winning novels and picture books, Bell has tackled substantial subjects, as he does once again in Stones. The plot, which pivots on the stoning to death of a black Haitian woman in 19th-century Ontario, explores racism, religious intolerance, and the ongoing debate between scientific reason and spiritual faith.

The novel is narrated by Garnet Havelock, a contemporary teen. Priding himself on being practical-minded, in a class debate he argues that love at first sight is a crock. A new girl in class, Raphaella Skye, passionately defends the power of intuition and insight, declaring that science can’t explain most things that are important. Naturally, in one of the obvious plot twists, Garnet falls head over heels in love at his first sight of Raphaella, a character steeped in New Age mysticism. He needs all of Raphaella’s psychic abilities to help him get to the bottom of his nightmarish visions of a black woman wailing in grief that have been tormenting him since the night a blizzard stranded him in the African Methodist Church. Together they unravel the origins of the haunting, whose history too conveniently thematically parallels the attack on his journalist mother in East Timor by religious fundamentalists and the ostracism of Raphaella for allegedly belonging to a witch’s coven.

While the novel is a suspenseful, absorbing read, the mystery behind the haunting is played out with didactic logic and not nearly enough of the ineffable spirit of a truly haunting ghost story.