Monday, 14 May 2012

Book Review | Half Sick of Shadows by David Logan

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On the eve of Granny Hazel's burial in the back garden, a stranger in his time machine - a machine that bears an uncanny resemblance to a Morris Minor - visits five year-old Edward with a strange request. And Edward agrees to be his friend.

But Edward is not alone in the world. His twin sister Sophia is about to bring future tragedy upon herself through an all-too-literal misunderstanding of a promise she's made to their father.

So while Sophia stays at home, seemingly condemned to spend the rest of her days in The Manse - a world untouched by modern trappings - Edward is sent to boarding school. There he encounters the kind and the not-so-kind, and meets the strangest child. His name is Alf, and Alf is a boy whose very existence would seem to hint at universes of unlimited possibilities... and who might one day help Edward liberate Sophia.


Half Sick of Shadows, the joint winner of the inaugural Terry Pratchett Prize alongside Apocalypse Cow, has the makings of a debut for the ages. Its first third, in fact, is positively enthralling: the plot is piffle yet ineffably pleasant, the setting - a tumbledown old Manse with a cemetery out back, next to the toilet ("We had pots for pee, but plops were outside only") - is perfect, and I found our protagonist Edward Pike to be precocious but not off-putting, though your mileage may vary.

Consider this:
"Everything costs money, Mother said and, it didn't grow on trees. Shops were far away and maybe you had to travel across the sea in a boat to get to one. There were pictures of boats in the encyclopedia. One, called the Titanic, crashed into an ice cube and sank, drowning everybody except Robinson Crusoe, who washed up on a desert island and ate coconuts."
And this:
"If Father had allowed newspapers, I would have been better prepared to encounter the world. Encountering the world, and possibly conquering it, was my destiny. Despite the absence of information - except in the encyclopedia - about life elsewhere on our flat planet - the one God made in six days - I knew we were safer in here, in the Manse, with the dead all around, than out there, in the world, with so much Devil's work going on."
Sadly, Half Sick of Shadows wholly loses its way after a deeply endearing introduction. What appears a sweet small scale tale explodes exponentially outward, and almost all its power evacuates the immediate area with it. That being said, to overlook the quality of what comes first would be to do this debut a terrible disservice.

It begins, then, with the twins. Edward and Sophia are "a fraction short of five," and joined at the hip figuratively if not literally. Still, you couldn't prise them apart if you tried. Only one man can: their father. And one day, to everyone's detriment, he does. After burying Granny Hazel in the back garden, he elicits a solemn promise out of Edward's other half, to "Never ever desert your mother, daughter. Never ever leave your home." Sophia's choice is no choice at all; she swears, and refuses ever after to venture far from the Manse, assuming some curse is apt to accompany her.

So it is that Edward goes to boarding school alone, and soon loses sight of his once-inseparable sister. At Whitehead House, he and we meet a boy who shares Edward's age and intellect, but Alf is an odd character from the offing, and imaginary - apparently - to boot.

Here's where Half Sick of Shadows starts to go off the rails, and it's a matter of pacing, primarily. Now that Edward's escaped the Manse, the author seems to want nothing more than to bring him back quick smart - home is assuredly where this book's heart is - thus the middle third of David Logan's debut is a mess of missed opportunities and terrible time compression that one suspects he's well aware of, given telling lines like "Time did seem to be concluding. And faster than before." (p.163)

To wit, our protagonist goes from five years old to fifteen over the course of a couple of chapters. Suddenly he feels like a complete stranger, meanwhile the situation in the Manse has gone from bad to ghastly. Where before Edward had only to worry about horrible haircuts, mysterious dead dogs and a time-traveling Morris Minor, now there's rape, mercy killing and incest to contend with. In short order, Half Sick of Shadows goes from Good Omens territory to a place of poison and perversity that reminded me of nothing so much as The Cement Garden, that early Ian McEwan masterpiece — except Logan lacks that literary legend's crucial confidence.

His sense of humour, however, is excellent, and initially, his premise has a lot of promise. In their younger years at least, the twins are terrific company, and there are a few ideas in Half Sick of Shadows that deserve better treatment: namely Alf and, not unrelatedly - although it's difficult to discern - the time-traveling Morris Minor. Alas, these threads of narrative and character become hopelessly entangled with a hodgepodge of other nonsense, so that by the halfway mark, never mind the end, they have frayed to the point of breaking.

For a first novel, Half Sick of Shadows is worth a look on the strength of its wonderfully whimsical opening act alone, but be advised: look at this bit quickly, then avert your eyes. It gets awfully ugly awfully quickly thereafter.


Half Sick of Shadows
by David Logan

UK Publication: May 2012, Doubleday

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1 comment:

  1. I knew this book won the contest judged by Sir Terry Pratchett, and so I was prepared to enjoy it. After reading this book, I feel that, perhaps, with all due respect, Sir Pratchett is a better writer than a judge. The plot of this book is long and meandering, and, as a previous reviewer mentioned, there are some very twisted sex scenes that really don't further the plot.