Jeffrey Ford's new novel, The Shadow Year: A Novel, contains a number of my favorite literary themes: a child's perspective of the mysterious (and often ambiguous) world of adults; the intuitive fantasy world of children; and the echo of fairy tale rites-of-passage through dark and dangerous woods. Set in the early Sixties in a small town, three siblings find themselves at the center of a series of troubling events that begin in the late days of summer, and deepen throughout the winter. The narrator's sixth grade classmate disappears, a peeping tom harasses the quiet neighborhood, and a pale man driving a long white car silently prowls the streets.
The narrator, haunted by the disappearance of his classmate, engages his older brother Jim and younger sister Mary in the task of solving the "case" of the prowler. Yet this single case quickly becomes complicated as throughout the fall and winter, more mysterious events occur: an elderly neighbor and the ice cream man go missing, the school librarian has a mental break down, the peeping tom continues to harass different houses, and the long white car with its pale driver seems to hover at the scene of each of these unexplained mishaps.
The children have their own unique and separate ways of comprehending the perplexing events around them. On a huge piece of plywood in the basement, Jim builds an alternative version of the town, complete with small effigies of neighbors, and a hearse painted white. This "Botch Town," a microcosm of the adult world above in clay and cardboard, provides a vantage point from which to study the evolving pattern of the cases as a whole. Mary possesses a quirky prophetic mathematical vision and, like a child-sized Delphic Oracle, places the effigies in the streets and yards of Botch Town hours before each of the mysterious events occurs. And the narrator, our storyteller and "profiler," writes mini-dramas about his neighbors as a way of subconsciously experiencing and empathizing with the people around him.
But the exact nature of the danger afflicting the people of Botch Town is hard to grasp. Something is lurking unseen in the shadow, casting a pall over the town as the season shifts from autumn to winter. The children, convinced that a powerful and malevolent monster has descended on their neighborhood, place themselves in harm's way as they search for clues. Refusing to share their findings with adults, the siblings close ranks and head out to confront the shadow on their own -- slipping out at night to traverse the local woods, the lake, and even the grade school's labyrinthine basements.
Ford's novel conveys the same subtle-but-palpable current of violence that one finds in traditional fairy tales, at least in the older versions of the tales. This isn't a novel about the loss of innocence, for these children, like the heroes and heroines of fairy tales, are already familiar with the perilous dark -- more so, perhaps, than the adult characters, whose lives are so filled with emotional and physical fatigue that they insulate themselves in private rituals just to function. The narrator's mother, for example, is an alcoholic who regularly spins, over the family dinner, tales of a fantasy vacation in Bermuda.
Ford's writing is wonderful, as always -- his clean, precise style evoking such a specific decade that I found myself reliving my own childhood memories (with all their ambiguities): the backyard barbecues with adults smoking and drinking while children play unattended at the edge of the woods; the Halloween bacchanals, when one went out at night with friends rather than parents and wandered far and wide; and the various trials of grade school, from gruff teachers to playground battles. The siblings are terrific -- their exchanges hilarious (Jim's wisecracks are among the best), intensely loyal, imaginative, and brave. Though eerie and haunted at times, the novel maintains its subtlety throughout -- even its climax and conclusion are muted -- placing the emphasis not on the "action" of the plot, but on the slow transformation of the children, especially the narrator, and of the life of the town itself. Don't miss this one. It's another beauty in Ford's excellent canon of novels.