Sunday, 4 December 2011
THE DOUBLE SHADOW by Sally Gardner . Reviewed by Adèle Geras
This is a wonderful book but it's also almost impossible to write about. Every review I've read of it has said certain true things but none of them has conveyed properly the flavour of the novel and reading it will be the only way you're all going to experience a truly original and memorable work.
It's original in its extraordinary complexity but basically it's an exploration of every kind of love. It is sometimes realistic but it has a streak of magic running right through it. Several things will echo with those who've read widely. For instance, the first encounter of Amaryllis, the heroine, with Ezra, the hero is deliberately reminiscent of the first meeting of Pip and Estella in 'Great Expectations.' You'll find a villain here who comes straight from old movie melodramas, and references to various films scattered through the pages. And Ezra, as the writer herself has told us, is a tribute to the poet Ezra Pound who was so important to T.S. Eliot when he was writing The Waste Land.
The plot is complicated. It involves a millionaire who builds, somewhere in rural England, a glittering picture palace which is an enchanted time and memory machine. He creates it so that his beloved daughter's bad memories can be erased and so that she can live forever in a place where nothing difficult can trouble her. Of course his plan goes wrong and Amaryllis (together with other characters) gets stuck there, unable to escape. Enter Ezra, who, like Orpheus, goes into the Underworld to rescue the girl he adores. She is still seventeen because time has stopped for her. Ezra has grown up and is a boffin working for the delightful Sir Basil as a special agent charged with discovering the secrets of this astonishing place that keeps on appearing and reappearing much to everyone's consternation.
The War is on. The action of the novel starts in 1937, but it moves backwards and forwards in time. Ezra lives in a village with his mother and his father (shell-shocked during the First World War). A whole cast of other people, some alive, some presented in flashback, revolves around him and Amaryllis. There is war, and rape and desolation but glamour and beauty and love too, all whirling round in a kind of kaleidoscope of events and thoughts and memories and thrills. The characters are all brought vividly to life, from Tommy Treacle and his mouse to the hideous Everett Roach and the mysterious Vervaine Fox. Gardner is good at names. She's good at most things. She creates a world that both is and isn't our own. She makes magic seem plausible and at the same time as artificial and glamorous as a magic trick. The true meaning of 'glamour' is "deceptive or bewitching beauty or charm" and that's what this book has in spades. Towards the end of the story we're told "All is in disguise, nothing is what it appears." This is the most accurate summing up of all: Gardner is dealing in illusions and what happens when they're shattered.
But the novel also has a kind and generous heart and that's what makes it moving and true. The descriptions of the nation at war are superbly done and with great economy, too. Gardner doesn't hide anything but she describes horrors with a deft touch and they are more powerfully present in our minds because of it. Her style is light and sometimes humorous but always full of a kind of poetry, and I don't mean by that soppiness of any kind. There's an astringency and sharpness to the writing that means she avoids sentimentality and gush.
This novel is published by Orion on a new list called INDIGO which is for Young Adults. The designer of the volume deserves a mention because every detail of the book's appearance is exactly right: the font, the Art Deco vignettes that appear throughout the text, the cover image: it's typographical perfection and makes the novel an object of desire unmatchable by any ebook version. Adults would love it. Older teenagers would love it and perhaps even a few younger ones but it's a highly sophisticated novel and a complicated one. It will find its readers and they'll spread the word. My advice is: read the book before a movie is made of it. I will bet money on that happening quite soon and in the hands of the right director it'll be great. You will, however, lose a lot of the words and that's what makes this such an intriguing and fascinating book.
I've only mentioned The Wasteland (that's how it's written in this novel) in passing, but that's important. I've not told you about the white tiger. He's important, too. So are many other things I've left out. You are going to have to read the book for yourselves.
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