Visions of Paradise

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Shadow Year

Jeffrey Ford is one of the very best f&sf writers of the current decade. Stories such as “The Cosmology of the Wider World,” “The Empire of Ice Cream,” and “Botch Town” are among my favorite recent pieces of short fiction. But when I read that he expanded “Botch Town” into the novel The Shadow Year, I was actually undecided if I wanted to read it. Sometimes an expansion of a beloved novella can be extremely disappointing. Only the fact that I have liked every Jeffrey Ford story I have ever read convinced me to give it a try. But my expectations were not particularly high.

The Shadow Year, like its predecessor “Botch Town,” is a rite of passage story set somewhere between the 1960s and 1970s. The narrator is still unnamed (although I assume his name is Jeff since he is likely based on the author), a 6th grade student with an older brother Jim in middle school and a younger sister Mary. His father works three jobs to keep the family fiscally above water, and the mother works one job, then comes home and proceeds to get drunk every night while the father works his night job. The grandparents lived in a converted garage adjacent to the house. In spite of that description, the family is neither dysfunctional nor stereotypical, but loving and supportive, although it does have some disputes typical of such families.

The main plot of the book and novella concerns a prowler who is seen periodically peeking in windows around town. The three siblings consider themselves detectives who try to find the identity of the prowler. They achieve a breakthrough of sorts when the narrator realizes that Jim’s miniature town in the basement–the Botch Town of the novella's title which contains all the town’s houses and neighbors in miniature–also contains a prowler who mysteriously moves to whichever location where he is seen in the real town.

The original “Botch Town” was a very spooky story, much more effectively emotional than a blood-and-gore horror story, and the novel retains that atmosphere. The scene when the narrator encounters the prowler in the library is still genuinely scary, but where the novella thrives on spookiness alone, The Shadow Year has a fully-developed plot involving the three youngsters’ search for both the prowler and for the murderer of several townspeople.

But unlike many typical horror novels, Ford also spends much time fully developing the characters in the novel, primarily the central family, although several other townspeople as well. The town itself also lives and breathes as much as a real 70s town could.

Don’t for an instance believe that The Shadow Year is pure mainstream though. Younger sister Mary has an uncanny ability to move figures around Botch Town prefiguring what will soon happen in the town. And both the prowler and the murderer–neither of whom actually show up in “Botch Town” but are important characters in the novel–are anything but mainstream characters.

When I reviewed “Botch Town,” I moaned the fact that the novella had to end, and I felt similarly when I finished The Shadow Year. I immediately put this novel on my short list of best f&sf novels of the decade and it convinced me that I am not content to read occasional Jeffrey Ford short fiction but will seek out his other novels and collections as well. He is a great writer.


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