Sally Gardner – The Double Shadow

‘Once there was a girl who asked of her reflection, ‘If all I have is fragments of memories and none of them fit together, tell me then, do I exist?’

In a bluebell wood stands a picture palace. Arnold Ruben built it to house an invention of his that could change the war torn world forever. It is to be given to his daughter, Amaryllis, on her seventeenth birthday.

But it is a present she doesn’t want, and in it is a past she has to come to terms with and a boy whose name she can’t remember.

Who knows what her past has been, or what the future might hold for Amaryllis, lost as she is in this place with no time?

What intrigued me about this book was it’s connections to Eliot’s The Wasteland, which I read at university. I found it fascinating and I wondered about its echoes in The Double Shadow. While there are some literal references – Amaryllis calls the place outside in the picture palace the wasteland – other references are less literal but still recognisable, such as death by drowning, rape, the transience of memories, life and love and the repercussions of trauma. And those are just the things I picked up on after a surface reread of Eliot’s The Waste Land after finishing The Double Shadow. Still, however much influenced by venerable literary forebears, I fell in love with Ms Gardner’s creation for its narrative and its characters.

The story shows the importance of memory and how destructive it can be to both be trapped in your memories, like Ezra’s father Noel, or to not have them at all, like Amaryllis. Memories are part of one’s identity, if you lose your memories, you lose part of your identity. And indeed, much of Amaryllis’ behaviour during the first part of the novel can be ascribed to her being a young girl feeling lost and unrooted in her life.

I liked the opposition of Ezra’s warm, loving family and Amaryllis’ lonely childhood, and that she only feels what it could be like when Mrs. Pascoe, the family cook and Ezra’s mum, makes her feel the consequences of her actions—in this case, stealing a cake. This sequence is just a small illustrationof the importance of memories and how they are formed through relationships. Our first memories are built through our relationship with our parents. In The Double Shadow we see a range of parent/child relationships, from the loving relationship between Ezra and his parents, the distant one between Amaryllis and her dad to the abusive situation Arnold grows up in. These relationships, together with the friendships between Ezra and Amaryllis, Arnold and Silas and the dysfunctional marriage of Amaryllis’ parents, are pivotal to the story. The memories they engender are the catalyst for all that happens in the novel. From Arnold’s decision to built the memory machine, to his decision to put Amaryllis at its heart and Ezra’s decision to rescue her.

A double shadow is what separates real people from those created out of the loop memories in the picture palace, but it also seems to be a metaphor for the two wars that shadow this narrative. The novel is bookended by the threat of war. Even though the one is already past and the other still coming, their threat is felt from both sides, due to the repercussions of the Great War and the fear that it’ll happen again in the Second World War. The First World War is important because of how it effects Ezra’s dad and Silas and Arnold. The Second World War is important for the way it figures in the second part of the novel; it’s the reason why it’s so important for Sir Basil and Ezra to take the picture palace out.

Apart from two great main characters in Amaryllis and Ezra, Ms Gardner also created a wonderful secondary cast. I particularly loved Ezra’s parents, both his loving, no-nonsense mother and his emotionally-damaged, but equally loving father, and Tommy Treacle. Tommy is such a touching character, he is an innocent, who in his unfettered innocence seems to possess a wisdom that many of the adults around him lack. Apart from lovely characters, there are also some wicked baddies, some actually really awful such as Everett Roach, others more of an everyday awfulness, such as Ezra’s nosy, gossip-y neighbour Mrs Calthorpe. Since so much of the book revolves around relationships, memories and their consequences, a cast of strong characters is indispensable. Luckily Ms Gadner has created a very strong cast of characters across the board and none of them drop the ball in this intricate dance of memory and reality.

The Double Shadow is a haunting book, one which I had trouble putting down at night and couldn’t wait to get back to. Ms Gardner’s writing is strong and sure and she is ever in control of her story. One of the strongest YA novels I’ve read this year and one that most adults would enjoy too. Another new author discovered this year and another three books of backlist I need to get my hands on!

This book was sent to me for review by the publisher.