Three’s a crowd.
Publisher: Bantam Press (Random House)
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 8th April 2014
Ellen drowned and Hannah has never got over it. The event haunts her still, twenty years later. When she starts to see Ellen in places that reference their past together as friends, as well as at her work place, Hannah wonders if it’s time to go back for therapy. But there’s something nagging at her, and, illusion or not, she feels it’s time to finally discover what happened whilst she herself was in Chile.
In Her Shadow is Douglas’s beautifully written fourth book. It’s a lot slower in pace than the author’s previous work, The Secrets Between Us, but the pace is warranted and it gives Douglas a lot of time in which to explore the themes she chose to include. Likewise the plot is fairly predictable, and this appears to be intended so that you focus on the ‘right’ things.
The book sports an unreliable narrator who presents a fantastic opportunity for the reader to really delve into what’s going on. Hannah is quite obviously unreliable from the very start and with good reason – during the chapters where the adult Hannah looks back on her childhood you’re inevitably presented with a child’s view of life. Where Hannah says that Ellen is a drama queen, where she says that Ellen is too lucky, beyond a couple of choice quotations (that of course could be coloured by jealously themselves), it is apparent that Hannah isn’t seeing reality. Hannah, once good friends with a boy called Jago, becomes the third-wheel when she introduces Ellen to the ‘circle’. That she is, in a way, third wheel, is true, but she is very wrong about the friendship in general.
What is most interesting, as the reader reads on and learns just how wrong Hannah’s thoughts of Ellen are, is that it’s Hannah who is better off. Due to Hannah’s unreliability, the reader can see for themselves not only the truth, easily, but also explore the way jealously affects people, and the extent to which it can destroy a person. And it is exactly because Hannah is too young to know what’s she’s doing that she enables you to see what’s really going on. Because she does not understand what she sees, she ends up telling you the reality just as much as her erroneous thoughts. Indeed it’s intriguing to think that whilst the first-person generally means less knowledge of others, usage of the third-person in this book would ironically have led to less knowledge of Ellen.
And so Douglas shows us just how much perception can play in the construction of opinions. Of course we all know this, but by using a child and making what’s actually going on a horrendous abuse, the author really hones in on it. And it shows how children will latch on to what works for them – a father who hugs his child when their own parent doesn’t, means he must be a good person and that his daughter is lying. Hannah isn’t mature enough to recognise dangerous obsession and abuse; she sees what’s on the surface.
It’s not a spoiler to say that abuse and mental illness is at the heart of this novel. Throughout the reader is presented with the questions – is this man violent? Is this man interested in young girls? Is he mad? There is also Hannah’s mental stability to consider. Jealousy is of course an issue in itself but in her case it’s intertwined with anxiety, fear, and regret. Perhaps it makes Hannah feel better to confine her feelings of guilt to the same box as her jealousy – it’s easier to push bad memories away if you believe the person was awful.
Hannah also has an issue with identity – the boy who kissed her becomes her brother, Hannah isn’t happy in her career, and her parents, though supportive, are not the affectionate kind.
This is where the slow-pacing makes the most sense – in that at first you might find it slow without reason, but as the book continues you see why Douglas has opted to use it. There is just so much to consider. Douglas wants you to really understand Hannah, to see what she thinks and how she got it wrong, to see what her life is really like, and as the book progresses you realise that perhaps it’s not ‘just’ that Hannah was wrong about Ellen, maybe Hannah isn’t as good a person as you thought. Is she misguided, is she led by her lack of information? And what on earth will she do to make things right? There are no huge shocks in this book, no big climax. There isn’t supposed to be.
In Her Shadow is a book with a main character you may not completely like but who you can relate to; you will find yourself rooting for her to learn the truth. There are many injustices and misunderstandings here and it is not a simple case of age making someone wiser. The book does end relatively quickly, and one plot thread in particular is wrapped up in a couple of pages and not particularly satisfactorily, but there are no threads left hanging.
In Her Shadow is a wonderful study of personality, mentality, and its extremes. It may make you want to praise it to the hills or it may not – either way it’s likely you’ll find it difficult to put down.
April 23, 2014, 5:18 pm
It takes a talented author to bring out the truth for the reader to see all the while telling the story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator.
This sounds like a thought provoking book.
April 23, 2014, 8:48 pm
It sounds good :)
May 5, 2014, 3:46 pm
Even though I’ve never read a book by the author, for some reason I’ve always thought her books (or maybe it’s the book covers) is in the same category or style as Kate Morton. You know, that mystery type/ cozy reads.
This sounds like such a great read. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, I will add it to the TBR!