The Shadow Year (2008)
By Jeffrey Ford
It’s the mid-1960s on Long Island, New York, and an unnamed preteen narrator is beginning a year of his life he will never forget. This is his last year in elementary school and he, his brother Jim, and little sister Mary become embroiled in a mystery that no one else in their neighborhood seems to take note of it. It starts with the disappearance of a local boy and then rumors of a peeping tom carousing the backyards at night. The narrator spies a strange white car driven by a man dressed all in white whose presence seems to correlate with the prowler. Then his sister Mary, an odd one who allows her imaginary friends to speak through her, begins to show the possibility of clairvoyance, knowing where neighbors are at precise moments when she should not be able to. This shadow year will linger for our protagonist and what he learns will haunt him decades later.
The aspect of this novel that struck me the hardest was the strength of the narrator’s voice. Ford does an excellent job framing the story through the eyes of an adult man remembering the events. From the first pages, events flow in a dreamlike and hazy fashion. There are not many places where the author lingers in detail. Instead, we get the broad brushstrokes of childhood memory. Even better, the fantastic elements of the story are met with little fanfare by the children. They live at a point in their lives where monsters, ghosts, and other supernatural things are just as real and mysterious to them as the complicated relationships of their parents and the struggles of school.
I loved how at a distance the character of Mary was from the reader. It makes sense that the narrator, having grown up with her and her eccentricities doesn’t feel a need to exposit on the hows and whys of her behavior. Mary just is, and her various characters/voices are only a part of Mary her family accepts and loves. Jim is also an intensely realized character, the older brother whom the narrator follows no matter how risky or dangerous an idea might be. Jim believes he is worldly wise in comparison to his younger siblings, but we see his own flaws in thinking as he is so sure of what the path forward should be and is inevitably wrong.
The Shadow Year belongs to the same genre of fantasy/horror as IT but is a better story in that it doesn’t work to overcomplicate its narrative. The cast of characters is kept large but not bloated. The supernatural is used as a light touch rather than heavy-handed. Humor and slice of life are just as crucial to the story as the fantastic. There is no epic climax, though the mystery does get wrapped up and explained very well. However, there are the loose threads that come from childhood. Ford includes those strange encounters or bits of gossip children overhear that are never resolved and come back to your memories years later, leaving you wondering about what was really going on. This is not an epic like IT, but a quieter, moodier story of childhood and horror.