Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Suburban Nightmares: The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford

The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford

The Shadow Year starts off with tremendous promise, reminiscent of two terrific novellas - Stephen King's The Body and Joe Hill's Voluntary Committal (from 20th Century Ghosts).

Like King, Ford creates what is truly a child's world. Set in the early 1960s, follows three siblings through one cycle of the kid year, which always begins on the last day of summer vacation. But it's a year marked by a string of mysterious disappearances, a malevolent stranger, and a neighborhood peeping Tom, and the three children decide it's up to them to investigate. Jim is the kind of older brother everyone wants - full of ideas, wise to the ways of the world, and protective of his younger siblings. The unnamed narrator is the middle child, quieter, more observant, and always scribbling in his notebook. The youngest, Mary, chain smokes and has an alter ego named Mickey - she's in a special class because her teachers can't figure out whether she's mentally disabled or a genius.

Mary also has a strange ability when it comes to Botch Town, and here's where the Joe Hill comes in. Botch Town is Jim's miniature re-creation of their neighborhood and the people who live in it. When the peeping Tom appears in the neighborhood, they make a figure for him and move it around the board to the houses he's visited. When the narrator notices he's being followed by a white car with fins, they add that to the board, too. However, Mary seems to know where to move figures around Botch Town that she shouldn't, and what's more, she knows where the stranger in the white car is going to turn up - and who he's watching.

The build-up is terrific, but unfortunately, Ford doesn't carry it through. Interesting plot lines fizzle out, characters that never quite gel are added late in the story, and the last 50 pages are so disappointing that it's almost like reading an entirely different book. The writing gets clumsy here, too, and though I suspect Ford had a very clear vision in his mind of what was happening to his characters, the action and intensity of the final scenes is a hard-to-follow muddle.

I'd recommend reading The Shadow Year, but only if you stop around page 225 and make up your own ending.

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