Not quite seeing double.
Sally Gardner’s young adult novel builds on two important themes from her previous offering, the minimalist and magical Maggot Moon. In the latter an omnipotent Big Brother-type Politburo tries to manipulate people’s perception of the present. Now it is the past that is under attack. Where Maggot Moon featured a life-saving friendship, the evil antagonist in The Double Shadow is up against bourgeoning teenage love. Longer, denser and more complex, The Double Shadow is sure to kindle the spirit of romantic adventure in Gardner’s ever-growing audience of youngsters.
This summer will mark 100 years since the start of the Great War and 70 years since the D-Day landings of World War II. The Double Shadow draws on the traumatic stress of the First and begins shortly before the outbreak of the Second. Wouldn’t it be grand if all those who survived the trenches could wipe away their psychological souvenirs? Equally, isn’t it terrifying to imagine a world in which the Nazis control our memory function? Yes to both, one would have to say, but what kind of mad scientist would build a machine that tinkers with people’s memories? Step forward Arnold Ruben.
It is not to quash his own demons that Arnold begins building his memory machine, but to save the mind of his daughter, Amaryllis. A noble-sounding goal, though when you first meet the 16-year-old you would be forgiven for thinking that she does not deserve salvation. The main interests of this solipsistic brat are looking pretty, reading Vogue and getting into mindless mischief, a dangerous combination which, supplemented by a mostly absent father, one day lands her in a very compromising situation with a highly unsavoury character. It is her first and most painful lesson in the sensations of sex and the motives of men, one she would rather soon forget.
Fortunately, the next male she encounters is a good deal more wholesome. Ezra is but a humble cake boy from the nearby village. His mother is a loving maid in the Ruben mansion, his father a mentally scarred World War I veteran. Arnold drafts Ezra into his mysterious home so that Amaryllis might learn the meaning of gratitude and good manners. The soppy mademoiselle at first simply torments the poor boy, but as the household begins to unravel her feelings quickly change. Together she and Ezra explore both their stately surroundings and the more platonic side of physical intimacy. Their course is at times beautiful, at others passionate, but always, crucially, consensual: vital concepts for today’s mostly sex-warped teens. (Amongst the important lessons is Ezra’s amusing yet profound discovery that there is no link between being in love and getting an erection.)
Just as this relationship is about to, as it were, climax, the focus switches to Arnold’s memory machine. With the Nazis bludgeoning their way across Europe the British government begins to fret about the device falling into the wrong hands. Leading the search for Arnold’s dangerous invention is Sir Basil Stanhope. Sir Basil is James Bond with a pension, a smooth-talking and eminent spy who will stop at nothing to destroy the memory machine. As the bombs begin to fall on London Sir Basil realises that time is running out. Slight problem, though: Arnold and Amaryllis are nowhere to be found.
If that sounds like an intriguing plot it’s because it is; I enjoyed it. The trouble is that it competes with several other strands of story and nearly a dozen extra characters. Maggot Moon thrilled me because its prose was so sparing, its story so stark. The Double Shadow frustrated me because it is too rich. After a promising first half or so I ended the novel lost amid a maelstrom of motifs, a plethora of personas and an undue surplus of existentialist self-reflection and bewilderment on the part of Amaryllis.
The important teen themes and romantic derring-do of The Double Shadow will delight adolescents. I, meanwhile, will forget about the page padding and commit the book’s many endearing qualities to memory.