Fiction Reviews


Half-Sick of Shadows

(2012) David Logan, Doubleday, hrdbk, 14.99, 301pp, ISBN 978-0-857-52116-3

 

I was attracted to this book because its cover: (i) proclaimed it to be the winner of the Terry Pratchett Prize (to be exact, the joint winner of the inaugural Terry Pratchett 'Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now Prize'), (ii) said on the front 'We are told Time waits for no man and yet it came back for Edward', and (iii) described in the fly leaf the arrival of a time machine that appeared to be a Morris Minor. This was a very promising start but once I had the pages turning it transpired that the Morris Minor appeared only at the beginning and end of the tale, there was little if any time travelling, and the story concerned not much other than the childhood and growing up of our main character, Edward Pike.

Edward and his twin sister Sophia are the youngest of four siblings, the others being Gregory (the eldest) and Edgar. We are never told where the story is set but they live somewhere very rural in a centuries-old house known as the Manse, a cold, old building without what we would regard as modern amenities; heating consists of the one fire in the living room, hot water is available only by boiling a kettle in the kitchen, and the toilet consists of a plank over a bucket in an outhouse - they look forward to the day when they can finally afford an indoor bathroom! Their father works on the nearby farm of Farmer Barry and their mother is a housewife who spends all her time looking after family and home. The weather always seems to be cold and wet and much of the year it is below freezing. Life is harsh and simple; Father is stern and his sole interest is reading the bible (his only book) and Mother alone has time for the children and it is she that provides them with the only love they know.

As the story opens Edward and Sofia are almost five and are playing in the freezing cold outside the house; they do not know it but today is the day their childhood lives will start to change forever. The time-travelling Morris Minor comes down the lane and strangely the driver's only concern is to ask Edward if he will be his friend, before driving away again and frizzling out of sight (and possibly out of existence). Sofia has her own experience; she sees the White Lady, a sort of ghostly apparition that heralds the death of someone close by.

That night Granny Hazel, whose bed occupies the living room, passes on. This triggers a reorganisation within the household and the twins are separated, each now to their own bedrooms; as the years progress, the once inseparables will drift further and further apart. It is not too long before Edward is old enough to go to school which, as there is not one locally, means a distant boarding school; from now on he will only return to the Manse for the Christmas and summer holidays.

Once at school he proves to be their brightest pupil, indeed, the only one who has ever been bright enough to go on to university. However, Edward is not that good at mixing with the other pupils and making friends and so is pretty lonely most of the time. It is only Alf Lord with whom he gets at all friendly, and Alf is rarely there and is often unseen for many weeks at a time. It is here that we next get the inkling of anything unusual for Edward has sort of noticed that Alf often seems a little thinly defined and fuzzy and is in black and white, though by the time Edward has grown up into the senior school Alf is more solid and colourful (but still rarely to be seen).

Meanwhile, we learn more of the family and its dysfunctions. Father continues to bury himself in his bible and take little notice of anything else, Mother is being worn to the bone looking after the family, Gregory is well en route to becoming a drunken layabout, Edgar is mentally incapacitated and will spend most of his life in an institution, and Sofia never leaves the house and its immediate environs due to a misunderstood promise she had once made to Father (and somehow the authorities never notice her absence from schooling). Farmer Barry helps the family when necessary, but he too has his guilt and secrets.

Eventually Edward's school days come to their end and he returns home before heading onwards to university. He is surprised when Alf calls in for a few days at the Manse and he finally gets the answer as to why Alf is rarely seen: Alf is from another reality. From here on everything in Edward's life starts to fall apart rapidly and with devastating finality.

To start with I thought the story was going to be really interesting but this expectation did not mature and after a while I realised it was proving to be only an enjoyable account of Edward's growing years. The author tells the story well and his early descriptions of the world through the eyes of the very young Edward evoked reminiscences of my own early years, such as the way that a limited vocabulary and lack of experience in life could lead to some amusing (to adults) views of life and how it works; it provided the humour that I had somehow expected of a winner of an award from Terry Pratchett. The description of day to day life in the cold, deprived Manse resonated well with memories of my own childhood in a Victorian house which, as central heating had yet to be widely installed in houses, relied on the only coal fire for general warmth and where, on the coldest of winter nights, a cup of water left too near the window might be frozen by the next morning - though at least we had the blessings of an indoor bathroom, hot running water, and additional portable heaters for mid-winter!

By the time the story reached the period where Edward was at school it was ticking along nicely but without anything especial happening (other than the slightly mysterious comments about Alf). It was only in the last quarter of the book that the purpose of the story started to become clear and, even then, it was rather vague and not that interesting (though it was, as indicated above, quite devastating to many of those involved). The end, when it finally came, was fitting to the story and finished it sort of nicely yet somehow I felt that it needed more oomph but had only achieved a whimper. To borrow an expression from the text, it frizzled out.

The story was well written and flowed well, it did an excellent job of describing Edward's younger childhood in the Manse, but failed ultimately to provide a story which I found sufficiently satisfying or to deliver an ending which justified the time I had spent getting to it.

On the other hand Terry Pratchett must have been impressed by it. Such is the nature of personal opinion. Perhaps I was mislead by the cover blurb and expected something different to what I got and was thus disappointed; after all, a time-travelling Morris Minor has such possibilities but not, it was to prove, in this book. Indeed, the whole time travelling thing and alternative realities was underplayed to the point of being barely mentioned and that, I think, is what I found missing, especially as, ultimately, I thought that is what it was supposed to be all about.

Peter Tyers

You can also see Mark's review of, and a different take on, Half-Sick of Shadows.


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