Fiction Reviews

Half Sick of Shadows

(2012) David Logan, Doubleday, hrdbk, £14.99, 300pp, ISBN 978-0-857-52116-3


Now this was a surprise. A time machine in Chapter One, then two hundred pages of what I imagined was quite a different type of book. I was looking for the genre content when it crept right up to me and hit me over the head, Hard.

David Logan won the Terry Pratchett Prize in 2011 for Half Sick of Shadows, and it is easy to see why. This is accomplished writing: uneasy, edgy, rich in content and perplexing in form. But it is not easy to work out what’s going on and the body count is altogether too high for my liking. The time traveller in the first chapter is a bit of a red herring but it does telegraph weirdness. After he makes his appearance to the wide-eyed five year old Edward we return to the small boy’s world. Told from his point of view as he grows up, first in the family home, a manse with its own cemetery, then at boarding school where the precocious Edward has as his only friend a boy, Alf, who no-one else seems to notice. And then, after, back to the Manse, where everything falls apart. The plot doesn’t make much sense, but it does not really need to. Edward and his twin sister Sophia live in the Manse with his parents, his simple brother Edgar, his wastrel older brother Gregory and, until the day the book starts, Granny Hazel. Before she died, Granny Hazell made Sophia promise never to leave the Manse, and so Edward is wrenched away to go to boarding school and Sophia remains behind. We then spend a lot of time with Edward growing up at school, making occasional trips back to the Manse where his bible-obsessed father and indifferent mother steadily deteriorate. Then Edward leaves, set for University and returns to the Manse where he learns the truth about his strange friend Alf, who thinks of himself as Edward’s muse and a planter of ideas. Ah, then there’s stuff about multiverses and some universes being more real than others. Orchard universes, like ours, where ideas are plucked. So perhaps Edward is the muse and Alf the artist. And around this time people start to die their matter of fact deaths. Edward stumbles upon a corpse wrapped in a piece of carpet in a ditch and, like you do, puts it into the unused outside toilet of the Manse where, later, his sister attaches a rusty lock. It may be odd, it may be random, but somehow it works. And this is a fantasy so I should not quibble that it is ridiculous to hide bodies in the outside toilet, or the cellar, when there’s a perfectly good cemetery outside the house, not that Edward or his siblings make much attempt to hide anything. Edward does not think he can escape the shortcomings of his upbringing and he does his best to prove it.

Logan's muse is Tennyson, and more specifically, The Lady of Shallot. The title’s taken from that, and if you know the poem, you can probably guess Sophia’s fate.

I love the way Logan segues from simple prose to more complexity as Edward grows, rather like the way J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books change in texture as Harry ages. But this is no kid’s book. What is it about? It is either a strength or a weakness that it could be about many things. The circularity of time, certainly. Inevitability? Or the power of poetry to create – or destroy universes? Or maybe it’s just about a dysfunctional family who self-destruct in an inevitable, spectacular but matter of fact way? And maybe that means it’s about us? Can we escape our fate? Can we find our knight in shining armour? In the end, the book hinges on whether Alf has the power to save Sophia and, in doing so, change fate. Intriguing.

Mark Bilsborough

You can also see Peter's review of Half-Sick of Shadows.

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