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The Shadow Year: A Novelby Jeffrey Ford
Synopses & Reviews
In New York's Long Island, in the unpredictable decade of the 1960s, a young boy laments the approaching close of summer and the advent of sixth grade. Growing up in a household with an overworked father whom he rarely sees, an alcoholic mother who paints wonderful canvases that are never displayed, an older brother who serves as both tormentor and protector, and a younger sister who inhabits her own secret world, the boy takes his amusements where he can find them. Some of his free time is spent in the basement of the family's modest home, where he and his brother, Jim, have created Botch Town, a detailed cardboard replica of their community, complete with clay figurines representing friends and neighbors. And so the time passes with a not-always-reassuring sameness — until the night a prowler is reported stalking the neighborhood.
Appointing themselves ad hoc investigators, the brothers set out to aid the police — while their little sister, Mary, smokes cigarettes, speaks in other voices, inhabits alternate personas...and, unbeknownst to her older siblings, moves around the inanimate residents of Botch Town. But ensuing events add a shadowy cast to the boys' night games: disappearances, deaths, and spectral sightings capped off by the arrival of a sinister man in a long white car trawling the neighborhood after dark. Strangest of all is the inescapable fact that every one of these troubling occurrences seems to correspond directly to the changes little Mary has made to the miniature town in the basement.
Not since Ray Bradbury's classic Dandelion Wine has a novel so richly evoked the dark magic of small-town boyhood. At once a hypnotically compelling mystery, a masterful re-creation of a unique time and place, a celebration of youth, and a poignant and disquieting portrait of home and family — all balancing on a razor's edge separating reality from the unsettlingly remarkable — The Shadow Year is a monumental new work from one of contemporary fiction's most fearless and inventive artists.
"In Edgar-winner Ford's disappointing sixth novel, the narrator — a nameless boy growing up on suburban Long Island in the mid-1960s — spends what remains of his summer vacation roaming the neighborhood with his older brother, Jim. At home, money is tight, forcing their father to work three jobs while their mother drinks herself to sleep every night. A prowler may be loose on the streets, and the narrator and Jim see a menacing man in a white car lurking near their house and school. When a local boy disappears soon after school starts, the narrator and Jim are sure 'Mr. White' is responsible. They turn to their younger sister, Mary, for help, after she mysteriously moves figurines in the boys' model town, reflecting events before they've occurred. The stage is set for suspense, yet Ford (The Girl in the Glass) deflates it at every opportunity with his unresolved subplots. Instead of building to a thrilling climax, the story peters out and loose ends are either forgotten or tied up too neatly." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Momentum generated by atmosphere and vivid characters carries the reader of Jeffrey Ford's new novel a long way. It's the mid-1960s — or so one surmises from certain details: LBJ is president, but hippy vibes have yet to waft into the Long Island town where the story is set. That story centers on a family that is classically dysfunctional — a dad who is rarely available, a mom who drinks herself... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) into nightly stupors, grandparents who step into the breech as best they can — but that, true to its time, functions fairly well just the same. The kids cope with adult fecklessness by playing pranks and collaborating on an alternate world: Botch Town, their homemade variation on Plasticville or a Lionel train village. Kept in the family's basement and populated by clay models of neighbors, friends and enemies, Botch Town is a kind of running soap opera produced by the unnamed narrator's older brother, Jim, with occasional and spooky help from their younger sister, Mary. Jim is Botch Town's nominal groundskeeper, but it's Mary — along with her alter ego, a boy named Mickey — who can move the residents into positions they turn out to have assumed in real life as well. The narrator himself is a sixth-grade nerd with a notebook, which he intends 'to fill ... with the lives of my neighbors, creating a Botch Town of my own between two covers.' There's a lot to write about: a prowler, the disappearance of a neighbor boy and the death of an old man. A Mister Softee driver has promised a free sundae of monstrous proportions to any kid who collects a whole set of 'Softee cards,' but he may have removed every copy of one particular card from the distribution pile. A sinister character known as Mr. White seems bent on harming children. After being fired, a dotty school librarian walks around a baseball diamond muttering to himself. As the novel switches between actual incidents involving these people and changes in the configuration of their effigies in Botch Town, an eerie tension takes hold. The prose deepens one's sense of foreboding. Take this chapter-opening passage, in which Ford unforgettably evokes the season: 'The days sank deeper into autumn, rotten to their cores with twilight. The bright warmth of the sun only lasted about as long as we were in school, and then once we were home, an hour later, the world was briefly submerged in a rich honey glow, gilding everything from the barren branches of willows to the old wreck of a Pontiac parked alongside the Hortons' garage. In minutes the tide turned, the sun suddenly a distant star, and in rolled a dim gray wave of neither here nor there that seemed to last a week each day.' Ford has won an Edgar award for mystery writing and been nominated for a Nebula for science fiction, which may reflect an impatience with the restrictions of genre. 'The Shadow Years' takes the shape of a mystery (who is Mr. White, and what is he up to?), but it also has supernatural elements (especially Mary/Mickey's ability to influence actual events by moving around those clay figures in the basement), while at the same time it scrutinizes its pivotal family with almost sociological rigor. It all works, I think, except for one thing: too much contrivance in what eventually happens to Mr. White. This is a common problem in fiction, especially novels on the sensationalistic end of the spectrum. The setup is so pregnant with drama that almost no plausible resolution can do it justice. In this case, though, the letdown is forgivable because Ford does so many things well. He makes the drunken mother not just another lush (she likes to believe she reads herself to sleep rather than passing out on the sofa each night, and the kids often place an open book on her lap after she nods off). And he gets across that one of the most unsettling things happening to this family is that the kids are beginning to pull apart from one another, that Botch Town will not be a joint project much longer. Doomed though it may be, Botch Town is one of the most enthralling places I've visited in a long time. Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor, and the mysteries editor, of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Properly creepy, but from time to time deliciously funny and heart-breakingly poignant, too. For those of you...who think the indispensable element for good genre fiction is good writing, this is not to be missed." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Spooky and hypnotic, this thoroughly enjoyable page-turner may remind some readers of Robert McCammon's Boy's Life, which evokes a similar nostalgic feel of the time period along with a corresponding mystery element to resolve. Recommended." Library Journal
"Like few recent novels, The Shadow Year captures the totality of a lived period, its actualities and its dreams, its mundane essentials and its odd subjective imperatives; it is a work of episodic beauty and mercurial significance." Locus Magazine
"Jeffrey Ford is one of the few writers who uses wonder instead of ink in his pen." Jonathan Carroll, author of The Wooden Sea
An award-winning author turns his talents to nostalgia and youth, bringing the optimism and dark underbelly of 1960s small-town suburbia to life.
About the Author
Jeffrey Ford is the author of seven previous novels, including most recently the Edgar Award-winning The Girl in the Glass. He is a professor of writing and early American literature at a college in New Jersey.
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