The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner
Sally Gardner is moving up through the ages with her books. She started off with illustrating and writing picture books, then she wrote a series of Magical Children novels for younger readers, before writing several brilliant historical novels for older children (see my review of The Red Necklace here). Now she has written her first novel for older teens…
The Double Shadow is set during the 1930s, and after an intriguing prologue, starts off conventionally. Amaryllis is in trouble again at her boarding school. She crept out on a dare to go to a grown up party with a man she didn’t know from Adam. Needless to say it didn’t go well, but she’s not going to tell the headmistress or her father that. She gets sent home to her family pile, where she will be home educated alongside the son of the family’s cook. Ezra had been hoping to become an apprentice to the local garage owner, and is not overjoyed at this prospect.
Amaryllis, meanwhile, continues to rebel against the control-freakery of her father Arnold whom she doesn’t love. Her memories of her childhood are hazy at best, and she can’t remember her mother who died at all. Her father, (who is American and an oil magnate), is rarely there, leaving his business partner Silas Molde to manage things. When he does appear, it is often with the ageing silent movie star Vervaine Fox who adores him, he has no time for her.
So far, so normal; a tale of the remains of a posh dysfunctional family living in a country house, the workers who look after them, along with the possibility of a romance between Amaryllis and Ezra. This is where the author introduces something paranormal which will take the story in a very different direction.
Arnold has long had a dream, and when he met the mysterious Silas he found the man to help him realise it. He has built a picture palace in their grounds, and within is a memory machine with which he intends to let Amaryllis experience all her good memories, erasing the bad, hoping to reclaim his daughter’s love.
Longbone slid open the glass partition. ‘Nearly home now, sir.’
Home, thought Arnold. He hadn’t been home since he was a boy of ten sitting in a picture palace in New York, his mother’s small gloved hand holding his.
Home was in the memory machine.
This machine is somewhat akin to a mechanical equivalent to Dumbledore’s pensieve in Harry Potter, but the reality is much more frightening. The machine makes the picture palace unstable, and it starts oscillating between realities and memories, physically trapping those who enter this most unconventional of home cinemas. Meanwhile WWII is starting, the men from the ministry are aware of Ruben’s machine and Ezra is recruited to find out what’s happening down in the woods where the picture palace hides.
As she has shown with her previous novels, Gardner has a sure touch when introducing magical, or in this case SF, elements into her books. The machine is there, always in the background, sleeping, waiting to switch into action. It’s a menacing presence, lurking in the basement and adding a slight edge of horror to this clever and complex tale. Amaryllis is a fascinating character, a girl with flawed memories searching for the love she’s never known; whereas Ezra is solid and dependable, yet never a bore. The supporting cast are well fleshed out and bring much to the reader, especially the enigmatic Silas.
I really enjoyed the way that memories are almost played out as film clips, and that cinema pervades the story all the way through, from Arnold’s youthful visits, to the Saturday morning cinema clubs that Amaryllis and Ezra go to, and the films of the beautiful Vervaine Fox – whose career foundered with the advent of the talkies. The duality of people’s different memories of the same event, how memories become distorted and a shadow of themselves is a powerful theme.
With some adult content and language and the complexities of the plot, this is definitely a novel for older teens upwards. Sally Gardner has again succeeded in raising her goalposts in this totally original novel which is very different to the usual YA fare, and again proves my strong belief that the best novels for younger audiences can have just as good writing as those for grown-ups and also be satisfying reads for adults too. Thank you Sally! (10/10)
See also Teresa’s review at Lovely Treez Reads
Source: Review copy. BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback (affiliate link).