Jeffrey Ford, 2008, 304 p.
I finished The Shadow Year about a month ago, and for some inexplicable reason, I’ve been having trouble writing a critique of it. It wasn’t the best book I’ve read this year, but it also wasn’t the worst. It kept my interest until the end, and I still remember a few creepy parts of it. I think part of my problem may be that I’ve read so many superb novels lately that I’ve become quite snobbish about the books I deign to spend my time perusing. If my current read is an average or even an above average novel, I often find myself pooh-poohing nearly everything about it. I’m going to have to stop doing this, because The Shadow Year, along with most other contemporary novels on the market today, is entertaining and very readable. That should be enough, shouldn’t it?
The best aspect of The Shadow Year is its creepy atmosphere and settings. Mr. Ford does a terrific job describing the spooky dreamlike cloud hanging over the Long Island suburb where the story takes place. The era is the mid ‘60’s, and a killer is prowling the streets. The nameless 6th grade narrator, along with his older brother and younger sister, solve the mystery by the end of the novel. While I found the mystery solving part to be pretty predictable, there were some genre-bending elements which were kind of cool: the little sister (Mary) was psychic, and the kids were aided in their pursuit of the killer by a ghost.
There were holes in the plot that were never completely filled-in, though. I think the killer was supposed to have supernatural powers, but they weren’t properly explained, so I was never quite sure about how or why he killed people. I wasn’t even completely sure about who he killed. Also, the school librarian went crazy, and the reasons were never explained, although this didn’t bother me too much. As we all know, many librarians are crazy, and there is no logical explanation for it—it just is ( =
Maybe Mr. Ford wanted the supernatural parts of the novel to be a bit obtuse. Like librarians, metaphysical elements, by their very definition, often defy explanation. They just are. Also, I think the phrase “shadow year” has more than one possible meaning. The narrator is entering that dreadful shadowy time between childhood and adulthood known as adolescence. His brother and sister are also part of that transitional period, give or take a few years. By the end of the novel, all of them have changed. They can no longer see or feel the gray areas nestled in the cracks and crannies of the known world. Their innocence is gone and they are as blind as the rest of us. If examined from this perspective, The Shadow Year turns out to be a pretty fine novel after all.