When Edward Pike and his sister Sophia were five years old, Sophia made a promise to their severe and intimidating father that she would never abandon her mother, and never leave home. And so, she never does, inferring something terrible must happen if she ever breaks her word. Even when the memory of the promise has faded, Sophia will not leave the Manse (which is a misnomer; there is no church for miles, although the house backs onto a graveyard); not to go to the next village, or to school, or visiting. At five, perhaps that is little sacrifice. As far as the twins are concerned, the Manse is the world, and the family are its people. But soon, the twins are parted when Edward is sent to boarding school. Here, he excels academically, if not socially, but the thought of Sophia and her self-imposed "curse" is never far from his mind.
What struck me most about Half-Sick of Shadows was that time does not seem to fit properly. Edward's childhood memories of the Manse read rather like a country childhood at some point in the early twentieth century. The Manse is vividly brought to life as a grim, gloomy stone house, freezing cold with no electricity and no plumbing; an isolated place miles from anywhere. Progress does come as Edward grows up, with the building of a motorway, colour television and popular culture references - but even these contain curious anachronisms, not quite fitting into a single time. Decades seem to pass in the space of ten or fifteen years of Edward's life, and I'm not convinced they can be entirely explained by the Manse being horribly old-fashioned.
"As a child, I never knew whether the world lay east, west, north or south of the Manse; I only knew that the Manse never seemed to me like part of it."Half Sick of Shadows was the joint winner of the Terry Pratchett prize or, to give its full title, the Terry Pratchett "Anywhere but here, Anywhen but now" prize. That seems to describe the Manse's setting perfectly: it is a world that is not quite the world we know, although I would be hard pressed to explain exactly why. Pratchett even drops hints (or outright spoilers) in his foreword that David Logan's novel is indeed set in an alternative universe - though "the people on an alternate Earth don't know that they are; after all, you don't."
And then you remember the strange encounter of the very first chapter, in which Edward meets a man in a so-called time machine, and wonder how you could forget such a fantastical scene which doesn't seem to lead anywhere in this brooding story about childhood, family, home, and the loss of innocence. The event lingers as a shadowy memory, another example of something uncanny about Edward's world, but as you read about his ordinary life, his family, his schooldays and aspirations and everyday struggles, like him, you almost forget.
"The mystery of the stranger and his time machine puzzled me for as long as the memory of it lasted, which, when you're stupidly young, isn't long. I'd more or less forgotten about it by strawberry jam on toast and sweet tea time."Half-Sick of Shadows defies genre classification, containing some elements of science fiction and horror, but not enough of either to describe it accurately. The story's potential overflows out of the 363 pages which make up the novel. Whole chapters, perhaps even more volumes, could be filled with the subplots and almost-unanswered questions. Logan divides Edward's life into three segments: "Before Alf," "The Alf Years" and "Alf Unleashed" - Alf being Edward's mysterious schoolfellow that only he seems able to see, and who might or might not be exactly real. As far as the narrative is concerned, Alf is the defining feature of Edward's childhood and youth, but Edward himself does not seem to notice him until the final section, when his role in Edward's life is revealed.
I felt that the novel was let down a little by its final hundred pages or so. The story seemed to get a little carried away, as Edward and his family get embroiled deeper and deeper in too many macabre plot turns, which were rushed through at top speed. It was all a bit too much. Aside from that quibble, Half-Sick of Shadows is a gothic masterpiece: shifting, shadowy, unsettling and occasionally shocking. It is beautifully written, poignant and poetic, and really captures a child's understanding of the world, which, though it may not be informed by the necessary knowledge to be quite accurate, is logical in its own way, and makes perfect sense to the perceiver.
If you enjoyed this, you might like:
The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman
The Earth Hums In B Flat - Mari Strachan