Completed 4/28/2018, Reviewed 4/28/2018
This book started out as a novella which won the World Fantasy Award in 1998. Bowes expanded it into a full novel and it won the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror in 2000. It’s sort of an urban fantasy about a man with a shadow self or doppelganger. It was a strange story. I felt like the author couldn’t make up his mind on whether the doppelganger was real or imaginary. At times nobody saw it; other times people would report to Kevin, the main character, that they thought they had seen him somewhere where Kevin wasn’t. Other times people saw the two of them together. It was very confusing, and although I have a good suspension of disbelief, I couldn’t tell what was real outside of Kevin’s frame of reference and what wasn’t. Maybe that was the point.
The basic plot is that Kevin grows up in ‘50s with an alcoholic mother in an extended Irish family in Boston. She has a shadow. He can tell the difference between his real mother and the shadow. His grandfather had this ‘gift’ and it turns out, so does Kevin. He starts abusing drugs and alcohol. He sells his body to lecherous men at the YMCA for money to fuel his addictions. Eventually he goes to New York where his lifestyle nearly gets him killed a few times. The theme of the story is can Kevin’s real self and shadow self ever become reconciled.
The book is basically very good. It is really well written, that is, the prose is very readable and fluid. It begins in the book’s present, with Kevin in his fifties. He hears that his doppelganger has been spotted again and he realizes that it’s time to have showdown with it. As he approaches the meeting, he reflects back on his life and his relationship with his shadow. It begins when he is a youth, progresses through his teen years, college, and eventually adulthood in New York City. Of course, his youth and teen years are troubled. College isn’t too bad. He even lands a job and a cheap apartment in NY. But drugs and alcohol rule his life and always ruin a good thing. He continues to be a victim, especially sexually. Then he meets a man who works with addicts and brings him to sobriety. However, his shadow is still out there living fast and hard.
That’s where I faltered with the premise. I understood the concept of the doppelganger when he was drinking and using. There were times the shadow saved him from potentially deadly situations. However, the shadow was like a real person in that it was living out there on the streets while Kevin was sober as well. I didn’t make sense to me. And I even understand, being in recovery myself, that even when you’re sober, your disease is still out there waiting for a chance to jump back in if you’re not always working on your sobriety. Still it had to do with the reality of the shadow, not the concept of the active disease of addiction. To keep from being totally frustrated, I had to suspend not just disbelief, but logic as well. Usually, fantasy worlds have their own internal logic. But this didn’t seem to have any internal logic. It was like Schrodinger’s shadow: it both existed and didn’t exist at the same time. Once I could accept that, I was able enjoy the book.
If I were a half star reviewer, I’d give the book three and half stars. Technically, it’s very good. Good writing, good plot, good premise, good characters. But the details of the reality of the shadow keep it from being four stars. So being a whole star guy, I give the book three stars.