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November 21, 2022
"Mes de los Muertos"

Review in Haiku: Shadow Baby

By Katrina Stonoff

Twin girls born; one dies.
Haunted survivor asks, "Why?"
Mother won't answer.

Shadow Baby, by Alison McGhee, is an exquisite book that offers some of the most original details ever described. Like the pre-teen main character who spells her last name in lowercase (Clara winter), a rejection of the season that killed her twin sister during their untimely birth. Clara writes copiously on a roll of green adding machine paper and uses words like "sororal" (don't ask me; I don't know either). Her best friend is an old man, an immigrant suspected of insanity at Ellis Island because of his habit of writing in the air with his nose.

Clara's First Person Point-of-View voice is equally imaginative -- and very, very difficult to write. A wannabe bestselling novelist looking for a textbook on "Show, Don't Tell" would be hard pressed to find a better one. Though Clara tells her own story, with only a limited understanding of herself, the reader sees her clearly: gifted, introspective, odd.

Then there's plot. Clara wants answers from her mother. Who is her father? ("You don't have a father.") Where is her grandfather, the one who walked through the blizzard for help? ("Sore subject; moving on.") Lots of questions about her sister, her shadow twin: Was she born dead? Did you try to save her? Why didn't you name her? And only one answer: "You never had a sister." Before the first chapter ends, the reader wants answers as much as she does.

Or we could discuss literary devices, say parallelism. Clara tells the story of her birth several times, using much the same language, but each time, a detail is changed, or a different element emphasized, until the family story begins to sound like oral legend: a seemingly simple tale with layers and layers of meaning.

Or, say, symbolism. The very first page includes a sublime visual symbol: a stained-glass window with a BB hole that has been clumsily filled with a piece of clear glass and putty. Clara may be the only person who remembers it is missing a tiny piece of its original whole. "It's gone," she says. "It will never return."

I stumbled on this novel. I was researching fiction about miscarriage, and I found Shadow Child, a memoir by Beth Powning. When I linked to it, Shadow Baby was recommended as "Something You Might Also Like."

A fortuitious accident. Shadow Baby is delightful and funny and sweet. And bitterly, painfully sad. You will laugh, and grieve, and rage. But you won't be bored, not for a minute.

This author goes straight to my short list. I have ordered all her adult novels and will pre-order anything new. When I finish with them, I may read her young adult fiction. Though I haven't read YA literature since I taught high school, I expect (based on Clara) to find fascinating characters dealing with pithy issues in creative ways, written by a masterful hand. "Literature," indeed.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-04-10
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