Saturday, October 1, 2022

The Shadow Year

Jeffrey Ford
Completed 9/25/2022, Reviewed 9/25/2022
5 stars

This awesome book won the 2009 World Fantasy Award as well as the 2008 Shirley Jackson Award.  Like some of the WFA that I’ve read recently, it’s a novel with a little fantasy element to it, but just a little.  It’s mostly a fabulously written story about a boy and his family in the early sixties living in a Long Island town with turmoil within and without the family unit.  There’s mental illness and terrible crimes in this sleepy town.  The main character and his brother and sister feel it is up to them to solve the mystery.  Like the blurb on the back cover, the book is reminiscent of Stephen King’s “The Body” (aka by the film’s title “Stand by Me”).  It is an excellent psychological drama that grabbed me in the morning and didn’t let go until I finished it late that night.

The main character is a sixth grader.  His brother Jim just started junior high and his younger sister Mary speaks in multiple voices, has a savant relationship with numbers, and seems to know what’s happening around town because of them.  Jim has built a replica of the town in this basement with clay figures representing the inhabitants.  He calls the replica Botch Town.  When Mary whispers numbers to herself, she moves the people pieces around Botch Town representing where they are or where they’re going to be.  At the beginning of the novel, there’s a peeping tom.  A little later, a boy from the main character’s class goes missing.  Later, an old man is found dead of a snapped neck in a snow drift.  The school janitor receives an anonymous letter telling him he’s in danger.  The main character and his brother try to solve the mystery of who these perpetrators are during the “Shadow Year”.

The writing of this book is marvelous.  It has an easy prose style that makes reading a joy and lets you read faster and faster until you get to the very end.  The setting is so well described that you really feel like you’re living in the sixties.  The only part that didn’t seem right was some of the details of the period, specifically, the music.  The story begins towards the end of one summer and continues through the end of the next.  That Thanksgiving, everyone is learning how do dance “The Twist” by Chubby Checker.  Later in that time period, “Time of the Seasons” by the Zombies is playing on the radio.  In reality, the songs were released several years apart.  If you could ignore this, though, the penny candy and references to “Leave it to Beaver” and President Johnson fill in the gap nicely.

The main character (M.C.) calls this time period the Shadow Year because so many terrible things happen.  At home, money has become an issue.  Father works several jobs.  Mother works and is a bipolar alcoholic. Every night, she chain smokes and drinks wine and cream sherry until she passes out on the couch.  The M.C. has trouble in school.  In fact all the children have trouble this year.  In town, there is the peeping tom.  Then the little boy goes missing. The M.C.’s only escapes are books and Jim and Mary.  

Mary is an interesting character.  She appears to be the problem child.  No one can figure out if she is smart or stupid.  While reading, you get the feeling she’s a savant with multiple personality disorder.  She plays school by herself, changing her voice for the teacher and the other students.  One of the students, Mickey, is a boy.  Sometimes, during stressful situations, Mickey comes out, like at Thanksgiving, or even at school where she is in a class for problem children. You never really know what Mary’s issue is, you just infer them from her behavior.

The fantasy element is very light.  There is a possibility that one of the characters is a ghost.  Also, the children believe that the murder suspect has “powers”.  Then there’s Mary who seems to know where to put the clay figures in Botch Town to represent where they really are, as if she has some psychic ability.  She claims to know where the missing’ boy’s body is located.  She seems to know where the murder suspect is going to appear next.  It’s as if her mental illness comes with a side benefit.

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was completely engaged in this book, wrapped up in the characters and their search for the murderer.  I couldn’t put the book down.  Thanks goodness I was reading it on a Saturday and was able to finish it in one day.  I had empathy for the M.C. and his situation at school and in the family.  I was surprised to feel this way about the book because it read like regular fiction rather than genre fiction.  But it was so marvelously written and engaging that I found I loved it.  I was glad it pulled me in right at the beginning, unlike the author’s previous WFA winner, The Physiognomy, which took a long while to get into.  If another book of his popped up on my radar, I would definitely give it a whirl.

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