Title: Half Sick of Shadows
Author: David Logan
Published: Out now
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.
Edward's 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.
Sophia stays at home, while 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.
Firstly, although this book is the joint winner of the Terry Pratchett Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now prize, Half Sick of Shadows is nothing like Pratchett’s work. Those of you expecting a light-hearted, enjoyable romp of a comic fantasy should stop reading now.
Still with me? OK, let’s see, where to start? Anyone who’s read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time may draw a few parallels from the first act. This book is odd, no question about that. The story is told from the viewpoint of Edward as he journeys from an inquisitive five-year-old, through his time at boarding school to his subsequent return to the family home.
Pre-school Edward reminded me of that age where practically every query from a child is “why?”. He constantly wonders about people, situations and words, yet the language is far beyond his years, and jars as a result. He is emotionally detached from pretty much all but his twin sister, his mother refers to him as precocious, and he takes to describing himself as such. Of course, Edward could be a child genius, but his exam results later in the tale state otherwise.
The book is split into two locations: Edward’s home, and his school. What do you think of when you imagine home? Somewhere warm and welcoming, with loving parents eager to take care of you? Edward’s home is nothing like that. The Manse has a dreary, gothic feel that gave me the impression I was in the American Mid-West in the 30s or 40s: the creaky, dilapidated house with no electricity, indoor plumbing or telephone and a graveyard for a back garden, set far from anywhere. The nearest ‘town’ is miles away and consists of a couple of shops, the railway station further still. The setting wouldn’t be out of place in an old fashioned American horror movie.
Yet David Logan’s dialogue is at odds with this image. Edward’s parents use the Scottish colloquial “aye” on more than one occasion. Part of the Manse is described as early twentieth century and it feels that this was a long time ago rather than a recent addition. Edward’s sister Sophia sings Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash. For a novel that advertises time travel straight off the bat, it’s curious that it starts off without a fixed point. The reason for this is explained at the close, after a fashion.
This, deliberately or not, kept me on the back foot throughout. Edward’s bleak school years are rushed through, giving little coherence between events, no pop culture references to grab on to. Until Edward reaches his senior year at school and makes reference to Harry Potter, I was still none the wiser.
Other than the opening chapter, time travel isn’t alluded to for most of the tale. Is Edward the time traveller? Is it his friend Alf, who appears to him in black and white and whom no else has ever heard of? And who is Alf, exactly? Some events are referenced out of time, so I wasn’t sure if it was happening as I was reading, or if Edward was just recalling something that had already occurred.
Throughout Edward’s schooling there are frequent trips back to the Manse, and the stifling atmosphere within. His final return home leads to horrific discoveries of how life has been for his twin in his absence. Death is frequently embraced then cast aside with no real afterthought or repercussions. Incest, rape and child abuse condemned in one breath and brushed away in others. Some reveals lack effectiveness, signposted long ago, one quite blatantly. Other questions go completely unanswered.
Hope is all but lost by the end of the novel, and it’s not difficult to understand why Edward wants to leave. Yet I found his behaviour in the closing moments baffling, and was puzzled by the conclusion. The reappearance of Alf, his explanation of his purpose, and indeed Edward’s, falls flat. I was left thinking “Huh?”
After reading this, you may think I disliked this book, and there’s the strange thing: I didn’t. While it’s not an easy or uplifting read, it is an intriguing one, with a new twist on an old idea. I may come back to this book in a few years and gain more than this time round. All in all, an interesting début from David Logan.