Friday, January 12, 2024

The Long Shadow, by Celia Fremlin


Faber, 2023
originally published 1975
249 pp


I bought this novel to read over Christmas week, but as happens a lot around here, I had to put if off for a while, just finishing it this week.  Not a problem --  while the action in this story takes place during the Christmas season, The Long Shadow is a book that is good for reading any time of year. 

Just a few short months after death of her husband Ivor in a car accident,  Imogen Barnicott, who is still existing in a "grey capsule of bereavement" is awakened in the wee hours of the morning by a phone call.  On the other end of the line is a young man she had met at a neighbor's party, and after a bit of "idiotic conversation," the caller gets to the point.  He knows, he says, that Ivor's death wasn't accidental at all, and that she knows it too -- because it was Imogen who killed him.  She writes off the caller as a "nut-case" because she had been home at the time, some two hundred miles away from where Ivor had gone to speak at a conference.  But there's no time to think about that now -- her stepson Robin has arrived, and she needs to move Ivor's papers up to an attic room so that Robin can have the room where they are currently stored.  Soon the house begins to fill up with Ivor's other (uninvited) relatives -- his daughter Dot and her two young sons (husband Herbert will follow), and Cynthia, Ivor's second wife.  On top of family, Robin has brought in a young woman who goes by the name of Piggy as a tenant in Imogen's home, so she has a full house for Christmas.   Everyone had agreed on a "quiet Christmas," but it's that night when young Timmie announces that he's just seen his Grandpa in his study, "dressed up as Father Christmas."  Of course, there's no one there, but it marks the first of several "rather mysterious" and inexplicable events that occur over the holiday, added to which is the continuing menacing of Imogen about her supposed involvement in Ivor's death.   

The book jacket of this particular edition is a bit misleading, with drops of blood suggesting some sort of murderous activity to be found in this story.  While there are certainly a few mysteries to solve here, they are woven into and around Fremlin's examination of Imogen's new widowhood and her grief.  She undergoes "a sense of loss, total and irretrievable," but at the same time hasn't forgotten her deceased husband's "vast, irrepressible ego" that makes her pray that God doesn't let her "ever forget what a bastard he could be."  She loved and misses him but she's also a realist at heart, and as time goes on, she begins to truly realize just how thoroughly (and often dangerously)  Ivor's larger-than-life personality and his charisma had drawn people under the long shadow he cast while alive.  Fremlin offers a powerful character study here, putting family dynamics under the microscope while building and escalating an atmosphere of tension that lasts right up until the last moment.  At the same time, she injects enough humor to keep things lively and entertaining, no small feat given the intense subject matter.  

The Long Shadow was an unputdownable read for me, perfect for cold-weather, gray-skies reading (yes, we actually do have winter in South Florida) all snuggled up in a blanket with cup of hot tea in hand.  I've only read one other Fremlin novel, The Hours Before Dawn, which is also readworthy, enough in my case that I ended up putting it on my IRL book group's list a couple of years ago.  I will definitely be reading more of her work, and a shout out to Faber for putting The Long Shadow back into print.  

Recommended, with the caveat that it may not be a mystery novel for everyone; I actually prefer mysteries that delve into the psyche but I also know that many readers do not, preferring instead a  standard crime-solving story.  I'll read her books any time.  

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