Ruth Seeley's Reviews > The Little Shadows

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
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Oct 22, 2011

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Let me begin by saying that my estimation of this book suffers from two biases. First is the fact that I read Good to a Fault earlier this year and loved its exploration of the complexity of modern life, its depth of characterization, and its choice of a messy and somewhat ambiguous ending. Second is that I am growing weary of historical fiction and annoyed by the fact that almost every major Canadian publisher has released a 'big name author' work of historical fiction this fall - Vanderhaeghe, Ondaatje, Hay - I'm sure there are more. What I'm not sure of is if there have been any 'big' Canadian novels that deal with contemporary characters and settings - nothing comes to mind. And in my attempt to read at least the six Booker shortlist titles, I was confronted by yet another historical novel, Carol Birch's Jarmusch's Menagerie.

Obviously these are my problems, not those of this novel itself.

And yet....

Reading other community reviews I too found this one difficult to get into. I spent the first hundred pages trying to keep the three sisters straight in my mind while being simultaneously plunged into the hectic world of vaudeville and encountering a cast of dozens of other characters as well. This situation improved as the novel progressed, but I'm not so sure other readers will have the same amount of patience and commitment to finishing a novel as I do.

This is a huge book both in terms of sheer page numbers and subject matter, although really it focuses on less than a decade in the lives of the three main characters. Should there have been three main characters, though, I wonder, especially since the middle and youngest sister get short shrift? The eldest sister gets far and away the greatest share of air time (even though the middle and youngest sister are, in many ways, far more interesting as potential characters). Should the villain be quite so cheerfully, pragmatically villainous and should he really be allowed to drive off into the sunset without our ever getting another peep at him - even though he leaves the eldest sister in a lifetime of limbo and is far too flamboyant to imagine doing anything but working as a vaudeville impresario? And yet, presumably, a man known to every newspaper reporter in North America, successfully vanishes with only one rumour of a sighting from the close-knit vaudeville circuit. Should some of the minor characters (such as the comedy duo East & Verrall) be ever-so-hauntingly revealed as sexual-preference-ambivalent in a scene of less than a paragraph? Would an upright Saskatchewan family really have opened its arms during World War I to not one but six down-on-their luck members-by-marriage, especially when one of them is a 'no better than she should be' sister-in-law, another her daughter who may or may or may not have been legally wed when she conceived the child she arrives with, and a third another of her daughters who's living and having children in a Fabian-style arrangement with her non-husband?

I found the ending implausible and the backstory unconvincing. By the time the three sisters enter the world of vaudeville the youngest is 13 and yet not one of the sisters has formed a single friendship at the schools they presumably attended (after all, their father was a school teacher). In order for this to really have worked as a novel, the alternative to vaudeville would have to have been set up as truly unbearably spirit-crushing, and it wasn't. Still, I found the book grew on me and the characters became clearer as time went on. I didn't hate it, but I certainly didn't love it. I'm happy to see an author tackle a very different style of novel from her previous one. But I would have to rate this one a not-so-near miss.

Other takes on this novel: (positive) http://ow.ly/75JFO and http://ow.ly/75JJb and a particularly scathing review that rather more emphatically focuses on some of the points I've mentioned: http://ow.ly/75JMu
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