The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

In a Dusty Coat With a Red Right Hand (Review: The Shadow Friend by Alex North)

As the official blurb says, everyone has met a kid like Charlie Crabtree - intelligent, manipulative, secretive and a little scary.  Paul, even as a teen, knew that something had to be done about Charlie but was unable to fathom exactly what before Charlie and his group of friends committed a terrible crime, steeped in Charlie's created environment of diaries, lucid dreams and a shadowy, red-handed figure. The aftermath saw one boy imprisoned and one simply vanish and twenty-five years and a copycat killing later, Paul once again finds embroiled in Charlie's world.

The Shadow Friend employs the dual narratives of Paul (now in his forties and back in his childhood home, Gritton Wood) and Amanda Beck, a police detective investigating a murder that bears an eerie resemblance to the one Paul has spent his adult life trying to forget.  While Amanda's narrative remains firmly in the present, Paul's dances between his recent return home and the events of his teen years.  As narrators both are compelling.  Readers of North's debut, The Whisper Man, will recognise Amanda and her arc continues to be realistic. It is her narration that holds The Shadow Friend together which is a good thing as this is very much a tale that needs a lynch pin, securing what at times can seem like a story that has moved outwith the control of its author.

Paul, returned to Gritton Wood to attend the bedside of his confused and dying mother, is not an unlikeable character but the very nature of his story, linked as it is to lucid dreams, suggests that he may not be the most reliable of narrators. While he portrays himself as a man trying to parse together a past that is anything but clearcut it is hard not to wonder if his hands are as clean as he himself appears to believe.  Within Paul's narration, we are introduced to a wider cast of characters but primarily to his small group of friends: fragile James, jumping at shadows; bullish Billy, eager to please; creative Jenny, who represents a different type of friendship and a different type of life and finally, Charlie.  Charlie is an excellently drawn antagonist primarily because he is hugely familiar - the type of child that sets your teeth on edge for reasons you can't quite articulate.  The teenage Paul's growing intuition that something needs to be done about Charlie is as relatable as his feeling that Charlie hasn't yet done much that would engender a response from anyone - he's just a creep. Isn't he? 

Gritton Wood is as much a character in The Shadow Friend as any of the aforementioned cast.  An industrial town that has lost its industry, North does an excellent job of imbuing it with an endemic bitterness - a bleakness seeped in blood and disappointment that turns what it touches into dusty despair.  Even the woods that border it which should surely be a place of dens and delight are known locally as the Shadows and take on a mythical dread, all creeping branches and abyss like pits.

For those who love their horror with a dash of psychological thriller, North has absolutely delivered. Following up a debut like The Whisper Man is no mean feat but The Shadow Friend is a worthy successor and adds to a recent slate of psychological horror that is both smart and chilling (hello, CJ Tudor). While at times The Shadow Friend appears convoluted, burdened by a large cast of characters and spinning off in directions that seem nonsensical, this style actually gives the story a dreamlike aspect - nebulous and sometimes confusing but still imbued with the knowledge that all its disparate parts might  fit together if the reader could just see the bigger picture. It makes for an unsettling read  and that, one suspects, is entirely the point.  Ultimately, the myriad threads do come together in and ending that both satisfies and smartly illustrates that the mundane is often more frightening that anything we can dream up, lucidly or otherwise.  Add this to your wish list - it's absolutely worth the shivers it will send down your spine.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird.  The Shadow Friend will be published by Michael Joseph in the UK on 7th July (and on the same day in America, under the title The Shadows). Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss Plus for providing us with a copy of this book in return for an unbiased review.

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