Reviewed by Beatrice Bugané
by Evgenia Citkowitz
W. W. Norton & Company
Hardcover: 208 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0393254129, June 19, 2018
InThe Shades, a mother and son are transformed by grief. Each of them copes through denial. The Shades is a modern-day retelling of the mythic tale that finds Orpheus traveling to bring back his loving Eurydice from the dead. The book’s title is drawn from the Greek myth of the souls of the dead, known as the shades, who eternally swim in the river Styx. After Catherine and Michael lose their daughter, Rachel, in a car accident, “everything [becomes] the after, and the hours that [pass] only the enduring of them.” Readers are left to imagine Rachel herself, floating through this river, Catherine on her knees beside it, combing the waters with frantic gestures.
In The Shades, Catherine hopes to take on a lodger in the wake of her daughter’s death—a young woman named Keira who formerly lived in her Hamdean home. Keira remains a mysterious figure: Catherine doesn’t know very much about her, and yet her enthusiasm around the girl seems to almost magically restore her vitality. In Catherine’s mind, Keira is set to stay in the bedroom that belonged to Rachel, effectively replacing Rachel’s presence in their home. In this impassioned and impulsive decision is Catherine’s attempt to revive the memory of her late daughter. It is her own, makeshift, middle-class family version of crossing the river Styx.
Catherine drives to meet her son, Rowan, and to ask him for his permission to take on a lodger. She bypasses any discussion with her husband on the matter—perhaps in part because Rachel is Catherine’s Eurydice; there is no room for Catherine’s romantic partner, or rather for somebody like Michael, who seems incapable of sitting with grief. Amidst these circumstances, Michael can only seem to think about his imminent divorce with Catherine, and his desire to put everything that happened far behind him.
To Catherine, Keira represents an opportunity to rescue all that she has lost. Her presence offers Catherine satisfaction, a newfound use for the Hamdean property, which “was never a family home—only an unrealized dream of one.” Keira’s presence makes that image of family life seem, temporarily, more attainable. Possible, even after Rachel.
Over time, however, this pristine image begins to be rendered differently. Keira doesn’t show up for the informational interview with that Catherine kindly sets up for her. Catherine learns that Keira has been stealing clothes, wearing them with their tags intact, putting them back surreptitiously. Her commentary on how the house used to be, when she lived there, doesn’t quite add up. And the cracks of reality begin to show through.
Just as Eurydice is never fully restored, Catherine cannot find the perfect person to replace Rachel with—the loss of her daughter is permanent, a fact that Catherine has trouble coming to terms with: “She had the feeling that she was at the end of a nightmare with an awareness that she would soon wake, but in the interim it was important to remain composed and refuse to be scared.” It is as though Catherine cannot allow herself to believe that her daughter is gone for good.
Later, when Keira proves to be a disappointment, Catherine grapples with mixed feelings with regards to the home that she once had so many hopes for. “The prospect of leaving [the house in Hamdean] was welcome and terrible to Catherine.” That family home is all that is left of the ideal that Catherine grips onto, even when all hopes for it coming to fruition have been, in every other sense, dashed.
Though his parents insist that Rowan has not showed enough distress in the wake of Rachel’s death, he is perhaps the character who is most transformed by grief in the novel. What Catherine and Michael perceive to be aloofness and indifference is, in itself, a mournful response. It is perhaps precisely because Rowan is devastated to have lost his sister that he does not allow himself to feel the full force of his emotions.
Rowan isolates himself from his family, choosing to travel away to a boarding school in order to continue his studies. On the day that he receives the news about Rachel, still at home, he walks down the stairs already dressed for school, and sits at the table to eat breakfast before class. There is no request on his part to miss school after what happened.
And yet, even though Rowan does not openly offer his experience of grief, there is a moment in the novel in which this is revealed to be his coping mechanism. “He would say adios to the comfortable perception that as family referee, chill observer, he hadn’t really been involved—when, of course, he was. His sister had looked to him for help and he was implicated. If there was a punishment for denial, it was stabbing clarity.”
It proved much easier for Rowan to pretend as though nothing was happening—much as his own mother had held on to her dreams for the future in spite of this earth-shattering, unprecedented event. The only response that seems to make sense, in the face of death, is no response at all. The novel pairs the experience of grief, and its overwhelming reversal of reality, with our general inaction in response to the phenomenon of global warming.
Rowan’s science teacher at his boarding school, Douglas Stewart, says the following to his class: “I want you to ask yourself why, in the face of ruin, human beings are incapable of adapting their behavior.”
What does our current reaction (or lack thereof) to global warming have to say about loss? Isn’t our planet, our whole understanding of life as it is, threatened by the promise of global warming? And isn’t that possibility so overwhelming, inconceivable—because we have never seen it before—that we are frozen in our tracks, unable to change habits that we know to be negatively contributing? Just as Catherine cannot bring herself to accept what has happened—psychologically speaking—Mr. Stewart draws attention, here, to our inaction and lackadaisical attitude around potentially catastrophic consequences. The prospect of losing a family member, of losing a daughter, is unimaginable. So is the destruction of our globe.
Indeed, Rowan reacts emotionally to Mr. Stewart’s lesson. He becomes enraptured by this information—as though the concept of global warming is entirely new to him, eventually deciding to leave school in order to pursue environmental activism. For the first time in the course of the novel, Rowan responds to disaster with emotion. He confronts Mr. Stewart: “‘I want to know what to do’” […] Then he couldn’t help it: he burst into tears.”
Rowan breaks from inaction when it comes to addressing global warming; he cannot seem to do the same when it comes to his fractured family.
For Catherine, recovery is synonymous with forgetting. It thus follows that a natural response is to remember her daughter with every gesture, elevating her memory to myth. And yet, Rowan resents precisely this impulse. He feels as though through it, the person he knows to be his sister is dismantled entirely. Mother and son are transformed by grief, and each respond with denial, but while Catherine yearns to rescue a sense of what came before, Rowan plunges himself into his work, seeking to propel himself into a distant future, a future of which his sister is no longer a part.
Lyrical and solemn, The Shades underscores the sense of meaninglessness that follows the death of a family member. Through its piecemeal narration that takes readers through various perspectives, the novel’s characters never quite seem to move past what has happened—instead, it is as though they swim eternally in their own fear of death. The plot, that winds and switches, returning, at the end, to the scene at the very beginning, mirrors the internal journey of those family members who are left behind, on earth. Despite their listlessness, both Catherine and Rowan are irreversibly transformed. Perhaps it takes a radical event for a person to change as radically as Rowan did, to commit to a higher cause above anything else. Certainly, both pull from the debris of loss a cold determination.
About the reviewer: Beatrice Bugané is a Brazilian/Italian writer. She graduated from Brown University with an honors degree in English Literature in May of 2018. Beatrice has held internships at Massie & McQuilkin Literary Associates, Folio Literary, and W. W. Norton & Company. She is a first-year student at the MFA program in Fiction at the University of Oregon.This is her first published work.