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Polly grows up in an Anglo-Irish family in the years following World War II. Her father died in the war. Her mother sends her off to spend school holidays with her grandparents at Kildarragh, a great house in the countryside, far away from Dublin.
I really like Anglo-Irish great house stories, and tales of family relationships, and this is a beautifully written example. Polly feels secure in the love of her grandparents and other family members who come and go. They are still mourning the loss of their son (her dad) and a daughter during the war, and Grandpa sometimes seems to think that she's his daughter Jassie returned.
Johnston builds up a portrait of family dynamics through lots of little incidents. The family loves to tell stories of the past and she has learned about those who died. However, I also felt Polly's sadness and discomfort as she discovers some painful truths from conversations between people who don't realise that their comments are heard. Kildarragh is a refuge for Polly but she isn't always sure that she belongs there.
I found the characters in this story very real and convincing, the living and the dead. One of the most interesting, and sometimes disturbing, is Polly's Uncle Sam, her dad's youngest brother, only 5 years older than Polly herself. At different points I found him attractive and irritating. He is sharply critical of his family for sending him off to school for a bourgeois education and runs away from home, and will not tell his parents where he has gone. While I liked his idealism, and was interested in his plans to go to Cuba to support the revolution, I thought his attitude to his parents was very selfish. I was uncomfortable, as I assume the author intended, with his attitude to Polly, burdening her with secrets but also with a rather incestuous and exploitative streak. This is never spelled out. It is possible to interpret Johnston's presentation of this story as failing to be critical of his incestuous overtures, but I preferred the ambiguity, the chance to read between the lines.
Shadowstory is an atmospheric, evocative novel with some strong, memorable characters. It is a novel for readers who like stories of thoughts and feelings rather than fast paced action, and I would recommend it to such readers.
It is currently available in hardback and as an ebook, with a paperback edition due out in June 2012.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk