Possessed by Shadows
Written by:Donigan Merritt
Published by:Other Press
Available at:Eurobooks by order, Amazon
Price:$14.96 at amazon.com, €20 at amazon.de
POSSESSED by Shadows tells the story of a married couple, Tom and Molly Valen, who devote all their free time to rock climbing. To say they are enthusiasts is an understatement: climbing for them is a way of life. One day they are out at Tahquitz in the south Californian desert when Molly is hit by a flying rock. Tom manages to get the unconscious Molly onto his back and climb the difficult route to the top.
After undergoing a brain scan Molly is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and told she will die within 18 months.
This forms the basis for the events that follow, though cleverly Merritt chooses to tell the story in two separate narratives - Molly's journal, discovered by Tom after her death, and Tom's recollections of the agonizing time prior to Molly's death. The technique allows the author to move back and forth in time as he relates what is a tragic story.
Following the shocking diagnosis Tom and Molly travel to Europe, first to France and then to where they're really going - the Slovak side of the then Czechoslovakia. It is 1989 and though aware of some turmoil in Eastern Europe the pair have no clue as to the revolutionary events that will follow only weeks later. Merritt handles the scenario with a skill that prevents the story being merely a morbid journey to death. The novel explores the characters' inner turmoil, especially Molly's, and all the joys (particularly of climbing), confusion and emotional pain that experience brings.
We learn of Molly's complex relationship with her father, from whom she learned to climb; her personal love of climbing, and above all her relationship with two (Czecho) Slovak characters: Saša, a Czech misfit who escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia by swimming across the Danube, and Štefan, a Slovak climber who had rescued Tom from certain death on a mountain in Pakistan.
Tom's narrative is told in more objective terms and represents a documentary account of the novel's events. Thus he tells of their journey from Paris to Vienna and eventually Bratislava. Some of the background narrative is particularly interesting: Štefan and his mountaineering companions' smuggling of medicine from Poland over the High Tatras into Slovakia, for example.
Though mostly convincing, some of the observations made by Tom annoy because of their stereotyping: assorted foreigners (no Austrians?) selling pornography and picking pockets at Vienna's Sudbahnhof, and later as they walk through Bratislava station a gypsy kicks his wife then throws her in the mud. But these are minor quibbles. The novel really comes alive in the second half, once the characters have reached Slovakia and subsequently the High Tatras. Molly's journal revelations, coupled with Tom's account of his wife's rapid deterioration grip the reader.
The story is told in very clear, exact prose that nonetheless conveys a sophistication and depth that will appeal to lovers of literature as well as those looking for a gripping read.
6. Jun 2005 at 0:00 | Roderick Pritchard-Smith