Narrated by a murder victim, Irish film director Neil Jordan's novel Shade calls to mind Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. But Shade is far darker than its chirpy, best-selling American counterpart. Jordan, whose films include The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire, has written a feverish gothic tale that comes complete with a decaying mansion, a forbidden love or three, and a ghost, albeit one who frets over getting the details in her story right rather than rattling chains.
In the opening pages, silent-film star Nina Hardyóor rather her ghost, her familiar, her shadeódescribes her murder at the hands of the nine-fingered man-child George. She then recounts the sequence of events, starting with her own birth, that led to this violent end. A childhood along the River Boyne in Drogheda, Ireland, is painted in idyllic terms that never quite camouflage the incipient tragedy. Headlights "score" the walls of her home, and the radio "bleeds" speeches. There are games of make-believe with her witty half-brother, Gregory, and with a pair of siblings from a poor family, Janie and the aforementioned George, but there is also, ominously, a doll accidentally dropped into a thresher's jaws.
The doll has a ghost, too, or so Nina likes to pretend, to scare her three playmates. Unlike Sebold's victim, Nina is hardly innocent; she manipulates her friends and loved ones with wicked panache. The differences between Shade and The Lovely Bones don't end there: While the star of Sebold's novel addresses us from a heaven done up to resemble a playground, Nina's ghost is confined to a septic tank.
Nina intermittently suspends her account of the past to observe a mournful, mutually suspicious reunion between Gregory and Janie in the house where the murder took place. While he's now a successful film producer based in London, she remained in Drogheda, stuck in the past. The foreboding contours of that past gradually reveal themselves: Janie carried a torch for Gregory. George loved Nina. But Nina and Gregory were half-siblings with an unwholesome fondness for each other. It is implied that all this has something to do with Nina's murder, but the precise circumstances and motive are withheld until the end. For a novel that's virtually all flashback, the suspense is surprisingly acute.
Jordan, the author of four previous books of fiction, tells this story with an unmistakably cinematic eye, which isn't to say that Shade reads like a movie, just that many scenes have a vividness and visual punch that would readily transfer to film. For example, in this exchange regarding the Norman structure known alternatively as the Lady's Finger and the Maiden's Tower, suggestive images of hair are captured from oblique angles in rapid succession:
And if the limestone tower was her finger, the seaweed must surely be her hair.
"Her hair," said George, sitting on a rock at the water's edge.
"Yes,' said Nina, "her hair."
"No, her hair," said George again, pointing down.
And Dan Turnbull thrust his pitchfork in the water below George and found it entangled in what indeed was hair, the hair of Miss Isobel Shawcross, governess, of the Kildare Shawcrosses, who floated to the surface like a flounder caught by a gaffhook.
Unpack (unbraid?) those lines to find the seaweed that stands for the hair of the goddess who gives the river its name, the real hair on the corpse of the ill-fated governess, and even the hair of the dismembered doll. Jordan achieves split-screen effects worthy of Abel Gance. In one scene he gives us burials of a fetus and a finger on opposite sides of the world. In another, a greenhouse where tomatoes grow is juxtaposed with a glass house where motion pictures were shot in the days before electric lights were bright enough.
For all the filmic touches, Jordan employs enough allusions and allegorical devices to underscore his aspirations to high literature. Evocations of Great Expectations, As You Like It, and Irish mythology abound, never gratuitous and always freighted with consequence. Nina leads George up the Maiden's Tower, reenacting the story of the maiden who commits suicide after spying the black sail that announced the death of her lover. Misunderstanding the difference between reality and fantasy, George moves to save Nina, taking them both over the ledge. She lands gently; when he comes tumbling after, she breaks his fall, but he fractures her pelvis and a few ribs. Another fall, this time from a galloping horse, foreshadows the hazards of a dalliance between Nina and Gregory.
Such unapologetically metaphorical falls, along with symbolic wounds and dramatic weather phenomena, may alienate readers hoping for subtle touches and everyday sentiments, but Jordan unmistakably signals his modus operandi with the "large hands, gardener's hands, scarred in many places" that commit the act that starts and ends the novel. It's a heavy-handed work, but graceful nonetheless and deeply haunting.
Mark Swartz is the author of the novel Instant Karma (City Lights, 2002).