Wednesday, March 24, 2010

*The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford

Winner of the 2009 World Fantasy Award, The Shadow Year is another good book by Jeffrey Ford.  It's also on the longlist for this year's International IMPAC Dublin Award.  If you haven't read anything by this author, you are really missing out. He's a very good writer, and the other books I've read of his are The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque and The Girl in the Glass, both of which are offbeat but well worth your attention.  

Shadow Year  is set in the 1960s, in a small town on Long Island. It's a coming of age story, a quasi-mystery story, with a bit of speculative fiction all thrown in together. I've seen this book compared with Stephen King's writing, and yes, perhaps to a wee bit, I can see why.  Here, though, we're introduced to a rather sad and dysfunctional family.  The main character of the novel is a 6th grade boy who lives with his older brother Jim, a younger sister Mary, and a set of parents who have some serious problems. Mom is an alcoholic and lives in a quasi stupor most of the time, while Dad works three jobs to make ends meet.  The children's grandparents live in an apartment attached to the house. The sixth grader is the narrator of the story (we're not given his name), and through his eyes events of a particular year unravel themselves.   While Mary runs numbers in her head and plays with imaginary friends to help cope, the boys have their own space in the cellar below the stairs: Botch Town, where the town they live in has been faithfully recreated out of clay and what ever other materials are handy. The boys often go down and recreate events happening throughout the town using the clay figures they've created.

As the story gets rolling, strange occurrences begin to take place.  A prowler is looking in through windows throughout the neighborhood.  Jim decides that the boys will take on the case and while they're working on that, a boy from the narrator's school disappears.  Even worse, the boys come across a man dressed all in white (known as Mr. White) driving a white car with bubble top and fins, who starts watching them. But as these events happen, the boys realize that Mary's a step ahead of them and has recreated them in Botch Town.

The reader is drawn in from the very beginning and stays there throughout the novel. You want to know what happens not just in the sense of these strange events, but to the family as well, because you genuinely care about all of these characters. Plus, Ford has this incredible way of evoking a nostalgia; my guess would be especially from people who grew up during the 60s. There's a reality to the atmosphere he creates that keeps you reading more. There are parts that are downright laugh out loud funny, while the family situation and other, more grief-laden scenes keep it real. And although the final payoff may not be as worthy as the tension that grips you up to that point, it's still a strangely satisfying ending.

Definitely recommended. 

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