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The Shadow Year    by Jeffrey Ford order for
Shadow Year
by Jeffrey Ford
Order:  USA  Can
William Morrow, 2008 (2008)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The Shadow Year, Jeffrey Ford takes readers back to the sixties and New York's Long Island, where he introduces an odd, individualistic family amidst a community of equally quirky characters who nevertheless all feel like very real individuals.

This somewhat meandering tale is narrated by a boy, the middle child in a family that includes his elder brother Jim - who protects and teases him in equal measure - and younger sister Mary, who lives in her own secret world and seems to have frighteningly accurate insights. The family has fallen on hard times. They rarely see their father who works three jobs to make ends meet. They make allowances for their artistic, alcoholic mother who seems to be bipolar. And the garage has been made into an apartment for their grandparents, Nan and Pop.

The atmospheric story opens as summer ends and our narrator is about to enter sixth grade at what Jim calls the Retard Factory. In their basement - where, before the family's financial difficulties, their father had planned to set up a model railroad for them and got as far as a plywood table - Jim has created a 'sprawling burg of Botch Town', with cardboard models of their community and individuals and vehicles in it.

Odd things begin to happen in the neighborhood, whose implications the children grow to understand long before adults have a clue about what is going on. A prowler regularly peers into windows, often using a ladder to do so. A frail and frequently bullied classmate of the narrator's disappears and no trace is found. There are deaths, seemingly accidental. A frightening man wears a white trench coat and white hat and drives a long white car. He lurks around the area, and follows the boy. The three siblings investigate in an erratic fashion and over time, the brothers notice the uncanny accuracy with which small Mary places Botch Town models.

Shadow Year is an intriguing story about a year overshadowed by a child's abduction, by deaths, by a ghost, and by a boy's growing fear of what else might happen. Read it for sixties nostalgia (especially the way Jim orchestrates the siblings' Halloween night) but also to appreciate how the children's overactive imaginations turn out to hold a great deal of truth, as they keep far too many secrets from the busy adults around them.

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