Remembering the Bones, By Frances Itani

The women wear the trousers in this well-mannered, century-spanning family saga
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Hale and independent Georgie Danforth has been invited to an 80th birthday lunch at Buckingham Palace as one of 99 commonwealth guests who share the same birthday as the Queen. She sets off in her car one balmy April morning, but within a few minutes has veered through the roadside railings and plunged straight into Spinney's Ravine. She is flipped clear of her car but survives, lying broken and out of sight, grimly aware that, having refused her daughter's offer of a lift to the airport, the Queen will be the first to register her absence.

"Until my car dropped off a cliff, my bones gave me wondrous support," Georgie gamely admits. Now immobile, she tries to occupy her mind by thinking through the names of bones that she learnt from the skeleton she nicknamed "Hubley" in her favourite childhood book: the Gray's Anatomy belonging to her physician grandfather. He had died serving in the First World War, but not before telling a soldier from the Danforth family's native Canadian town of Wilna Creek how much he loved his wife.

His is one of several branches of the Danforth family tree that Georgie mulls as a mnemonic for survival, gradually calling up the modest aspirations and quiet determination of a family of long-lived women that survived their early-dying menfolk, enduring wartime hardships and the Depression with a "never say can't" resilience. Great Dan was Georgie's grandmother, whose daughter Phil (still perky at 103) brought up Georgie and a sister, Ally. Aunt Fred and her husband enjoyed terrific, passionate rows while Georgie's father, Mr Holmes, was a distant, unemotional hardware store manager.

Frances Itani's choice of names makes the subtle point that women of necessity wore the trousers in the Danforth family, while conducting decorous lives free of scandal or sensation. Jane Smiley, many of whose novels are firmly rooted in the household, endorses the significance of women's homebound experiences with the reminder that "you can look into the domestic to look out again at the political, and then gauge who works, and who sacrifices what". True enough, but Smiley's work is braced with dramatic tension, while Georgie's entirely static recollections, albeit not lacking in emotional adventure, have a gentle continuity but no edge whatsoever.

The ravine is, I think, intended to provide more than just a physical edge, but I don't quite believe in it and it simply doesn't work. "I'm the Mistress of sequential disarray," Georgie rather oddly berates herself. "I can't keep my thoughts straight for two minutes." This may be the natural self-deprecation of her years, but is also patently untrue.

One yearns for the naturalism of a bit of distress, but Remembering the Bones is a well-mannered and neatly ordered dynastic summary, betraying scarcely any hint of the panic or fear appropriate to an unmissed, battered octagenarian hanging on in a chilly ditch for a few days. Georgie's vignettes of memory – interesting enough as they are – sound more as though she is reminiscing in an armchair in her mother's nursing home. This is a shame; Itani's prose is lucid and engaging, but her faux-dramatic context mocks the measured substance of her story.