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Monday, 8 August 2011

Shadow Child

Shadow Child

There is no solution to grief. Somebody had a metaphor for bereavement. You go through a long tunnel, sometimes very narrow and dark, sometimes broad with glass roofs, but you’re still in it, you’re always going to be in it, because it happened. – Libby Purves[1]

On the front cover of the paperback of Shadow Child, the copy I own, it says – above the title, and in capital letters – THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER which although accurate feels somehow wrong. Perhaps it’s just me but whenever I see things written in uppercase like that I hear the words being declaimed loudly: THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER. The book has been translated into 15 languages and rightly so. If Shadow Child were a movie it would be being referred to as a blockbuster and yet if the book were filmed it would be no such thing. Because it deals with death. Which is strange because it seems we have no problem with death, death of a pretty huge scale in fact. In Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King the body count was 836! The Two Towers managed 468 with The Fellowship of the Ring lagging behind with a paltry 118. In fact if you check out the top 100 films as far as body counts go there isn’t one where less than 63 people die. We like to see people die. And if we’re not watching them die on the big screen we’re hunched over our TVs or computer monitors risking RSI as we end the lives of hundreds upon hundreds of whatever the latest game’s opponents are.

Death comes to all men or, as John Donne, put it, “Death comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes.” “Death is the great equaliser,” – Hamlet. You would think we would have more empathy when someone dies but Joseph Stalin hit the nail on the head when he said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” The reason that Shadow Child would never be a blockbuster is because it deals with the death, not simply of an individual, but of a child, an infant. What is more the girl is not a work of fiction; she was a real, living, breathing baby – at least for forty-seven days.

I’ve said before that a writer’s natural response to life is to write about it. It’s also their natural response to death it appears. Shadow Child was not Pieter Thomése’s first book. He had written five before it and he has written five more since finishing it. It differs from the others in that the child, Isa, was his. And his wife’s, of course, but this is not so much about her or even about them as a couple coping with the death of a child; it is about a writer’s attempt to preserve his baby daughter in words. When Paul Auster’s father died he did exactly the same, he sat down and penned the memoir Portrait of an Invisible Man in which he writes:

Even before we packed our bags and set out on the three-hour drive to New Jersey I knew that I would have to write about my father. I had no plan, had no precise idea of what this meant. I cannot even remember making a decision about it. It was simply there, a certainty, an obligation that began to impose itself on me the moment I was given the news. I thought: my father is gone. If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with him.[2]

Thomése could have said much the same. What he did say of his daughter is that “[i]f she still exists anywhere, then it’s in language.” During a panel discussion[3] at Bookexpo in Los Angeles in 2008 he told the audience that he was terrified that he wouldn’t be skilful enough to get it right: “I wrote about this immediately after it happened. There was nothing else I could do.”

Schaduwkind On Amazon, the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition is listed as Shadowchild: A Meditation on Love and Loss but the Bloomsbury edition simply calls it Shadow Child. The title in the original Dutch is Schaduwkind. It’s a popular title, in fact Libby Purves has just published a novel called Shadow Child which she wrote following the death of her son. She, however, decided to fictionalise the experience rather than do the same as Auster and Thomése:

Novels are in some ways more intimate than any confessional memoir. Autobiography tells you only what the writer remembers, and how she wants you to think she behaved at the time. Some are truthful, some are not. But even the most honest memoir is a careful artefact, reality filtered through self-conscious caution.[4]

In the same panel discussion, Thomése said: “A novel or memoir can take you to places where you’ve never been.” It’s interesting that he said, “or memoir,” here. Purves deliberately chose to write a novel rather than a memoir because she wanted to explore aspects of grief she had not experienced. Her own loss had brought her into contact with other people’s losses – there are very few of us who have not lost someone – and she could see that there was a story to be told. This was some eighteen months after her loss. Thomése was too close to his to do more than try and record and analyse.

There is not a lot to the book. We learn about the events leading up to the child’s hospitalisation, the wait to see if she would recover, the realisation that she would not, her death and their initial reactions afterwards. One Amazon reviewer had this to say:

Now this is a beautiful book, please don’t get me wrong. The author expresses the pain of losing a baby with insight and real feeling.

For those who have lost a baby, myself included, it was comforting to read the thoughts and feelings of someone who has been through the same pain. (Although please note, the author is male – so there are some aspects of losing a child that are not discussed.)

However, the book does not chart the journey to healing this pain. The book ends with the author still in pain. Personally at this point of grieving, I need light at the end of the tunnel, some way to continue, so I actually found the book to be quite depressing[5]

These are valid criticisms up to a point. I don’t believe the author was interested in how they would cope so much as he wanted to record his daughter’s short life and its effect on him:

We learned to read lips, eyebrows, fingers. I even read backs and shoulders. I read footsteps, doors, silences. Later they brought in the equipment, more and more equipment. We learned to read that as well. We learned numbers and their relationship to respiration, pulse rate, blood pressure. We learned to ignore beeps, and could distinguish unerringly between the various drips and tubes. They provided us with explanations, the only ones at our disposal. We wanted to understand everything, we sought a handhold in every fact, in order to keep from falling. Into bottomless nothing.

How do we come to understand things? Understanding is cumulative. As a child I understood what love is. At least I believed I did. I loved and I was loved. I understood what that felt like. Only now I’m in my fifties can I accept that my definition required significant adjustment and I’m still not sure I’m happy with how I define love. The same goes for loss. I’ve lost pets, acquaintances, one friend that I know of, both parents but I haven’t – and hope I never do – lose my daughter. I’ve misplaced her but she was never lost to me. So I don’t understand what Thomése went through. And I never want to. I do understand his need to understand and why he would turn to words to help him. That is what appealed to me about this book: his struggle with language.

He begins by re-examining a death he is familiar with, his father’s:

For a long time … my father continued to pay absolutely no attention to his own death. After his funeral, he just kept coming home. He had a place set for him at the table, he received his mail at the old address. He had parked the car (as the only one in the family who could drive) in its regular place. His raincoat hung on the hook by the door, his hat lay on the rack. His footsteps were heard regularly on the stairs, he shut doors – upstairs, outside – behind him all the time. And when you got up to see what was taking him so long, you could still smell his tobacco in the hall: as if he’d just gone out the door and would come back in a bit. Sometimes I had to pull out the obituary just to convince myself that he was dead.


Suddenly, one day the table stopped being set for him, his mail stopped arriving, his hats and coats disappeared from the rack, his footsteps were no longer heard and everyone stopped getting up to see what was taking him so long. Apparently he was dead then, without anyone being able to say exactly when it happened.

Time reconciles, they say. But that should be: time reviews. It’s a review exercise. You keep in hashing things over, until you forget what it was like at first.

Empty CotKeeping that in mind you can see why he might want to get his thoughts down while they were fresh in his mind. He would never forget – that goes without saying – but he would never again be able to remember with such accuracy. Time protects us like that.

That the author is male, yes, but that doesn’t mean his has no insight into his wife’s plight:

You remained a mother right down to your fingertips. With knowing hands you cared for what was left in the dented hospital cot: a doll that had to be washed and dressed and combed, because we were playing that it was alive.


You bathed her, changed her nappy, gently brushing her curls. (So beautiful, I saw you thinking, hard to believe this child was made by people.)

This is possibly the most moving chapter where his wife gets the baby ready after her death. As she does so the father sips some of the milk she had expressed and struggles to describe the taste, finally settling on almonds. The child now dead, is then taken away:

Everything [else] is still here. The baby clothes, the playpen. Just in case. Just in case it all turns out to have been a big misunderstanding.


Sometimes I forget that the future is new. There’s still the old one, that I can’t get out of my head.


Today, too, on the street I saw forms she could have taken. There are enough things that would fit her. Gestures, faces, figures. … Instances in which she was potentially present.

All of this the father tries to put into words. There is a problem though:

Language, everything had been hollowed out by events. No word had kept its meaning.


My hands, my arms, are too full of holes to embrace what is being lost. The only words left start with un- and in-, words that try to get away, that try not to say something.


Where language is, there insufficiency is gauged. Only when a thing is gone do you find the words for it. And so every word becomes an afterword, every sentence is an epitaph.


Lifted from her body and laid in words. She has become someone who must make certain she is born over and over: in the words I find for her.


No pictures, please. A memory needs enough room to keep being recollected. It must be able to hide in places where no one looks. In words where no one’s expecting it.


I have to write to hear her; on her own she’s nowhere.

What is striking about this beautifully-worded memoir is what is doesn’t tell us. What is unsaid is important because it is unimportant. He divulges little to do with the death itself. We are not told its cause or which hospital she was taken to. If you dig around on the Internet you can find out a bit more but (in English at least) there’s not an awful lot there. I can tell you that she died of a brain haemorrhage but I have no idea what the cause was. Words are there to record, yes, that’s one of their functions, but, more importantly, words exist to give those events meaning. On the whole the language is simple, the sentences no longer than they need to be, the chapters short and to the point. There is no wallowing in the moment, no milking the melancholy. Lovers of misery memoirs will no doubt enjoy this book but to call it a misery memoir is to sell it short. It would be like calling Nineteen Eighty-Four a science fiction novel.

When I bought the book I thought it was a novella. I wasn’t disappointed to find out that it wasn’t because it’s far more than a record of events. It is quite correctly described as a meditation; one where its author comes to the same conclusion that many writers have come to before him, myself included, that words aren’t the answer but they’re all we have left to us. The most profound chapter is actually quoted in full on the book’s cover:

Missing word.

A woman who lives longer than her husband is called a widow; a man who remains behind without his wife, a widower. A child without parents is an orphan. But what do you call the father and mother of a child who has died?

I can just see that father thinking to himself or even saying aloud, “What am I? What have I become?” and realising that no one in the history of language has found the word to describe a parent whose child has died. Its lack of a word says everything.

Who is this book for? First and foremost it was for himself. Publication was an afterthought. The best books I find are those written purely to exhaust the author’s need to get something out of his head and onto paper. Do I think that this is purely for those who have lost a child or even a loved one? No. Like the Amazon reviewer I’m not sure they would find any comfort in it but what they might find are the words to articulate how they feel. Not everyone is gifted with words. They feel the ache but apart from crying or lashing out they have no way of communicating it. And so they paw through books of quotes looking for other people’s words to say what they have no words to say. Thomése may ultimately be saying that words are inadequate but considering what he was working with – these wholly inadequate words – what he says is actually more than adequate.

You can read the opening chapter here.


PFT P.F. Thomése was born in Doetinchem in the Netherlands in 1958 and won the AKO Literatuurprijs with his first book, the short-story collection Zuidland (South Land), in 1991. He went on to publish two novels, Heldenjaren (Heroic Years, 1994) and Het zesde bedrijf (The Sixth Act, 1999), and another collection of short stories, Haagse liefde en De vieze engel (Love in The Hague and The Dirty Angel, 1994) before making his international breakthrough with the Schaduwkind (Shadow Child, 2003) which won the Max Pam Award. He lives in Haarlem, the Netherlands, with his wife Makira and their two children.

His website is in Dutch but worth checking out for its seven bios, one of which lists the music he listened to while writing Shadow Child:

I’ll leave you with Mompou’s Musica Callada (Silent Music), Book 1, I


[1] Libby Purves, ‘There Is No Solution to Grief’, Daily Mail, 8th October 2010

[2] Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, p.6

[3] PEN WORLD VOICES: Politics, Memoirs and Musketeers,, 2nd May 2008

[4] Libby Purves, ‘Honestly, my new book Shadow Child is all made up’, The Sunday Times, 18th April 2009

[5] Review of Shadow Child by A Customer


Gerry Snape said...

thankyou Jim for this post. John Donne said it so simply yet profoundly that death is the great leveller. I had to radically review my thoughts about my dad last year when another sister was "dscovered". This seemed so completely out of character with all that I had grown up to assume was my dad's life.Dad was long dead but it was as if he had to come back and explain this for us who were left.

I must search out the book...thankyou for the suggestion.

Loren Eaton said...

That intro quote is so very well put. You never do get away from grief entirely.

Rachna Chhabria said...

It was nice reading about Shadow Child. I need to look out for this book.

Josep said...

This is the sort of book I'd like to read right now. How nice to find here the music by Catalan composer Mompou.
I can't be more interested in the discussion about these two approaches to the topic: the memoir or the novel. I've started to write about my father after his death, a month ago. I'm not sure in which genre my story will fall under, but I'm trying to get some distance from my father's death to avoid emotional excess. I could be completely wrong. In any case, I'll keep writing, and surely will read again this post.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m glad you appreciated this, Gerry. When I started my last book, Left, I imagined that finally I’d deal with some of the issues concerning my own father and yet I found that I struggled with that and the book veered off in another direction completely. The core of the book is the protagonist discovering that she also has a half-sister and the crux of the novel actually revolved around her trying to get to know a young woman who may or may not be that sister. It was interesting ground to cover because both women have very different impressions of who they believe their father to be. Certainly in my dad’s later years I learned things about him that I wish I hadn’t so I can imagine what you might be going through to some degree.

I am not sure about grief, Loren. It’s been over ten years since both my parents died and I always felt bad that I didn’t grieve more. Grief, so they tell us, is a very personal thing and we all grieve in our own ways. In Left I have the protagonist walking down a street and imagining people pointing her out to their friends, the woman who didn’t know how to grieve right.

Thank you for your comment, Rachna. Yes, I think you would appreciate it.

And, Josep, I wrote about my dad’s death the day he died, a poem, and then one the next day and one on the anniversary of his death. It was several years after my mother’s passing though before I wrote a poem for her. As I mentioned above I expected my last novel to help me process the past but even sixteen years after my dad’s death I still found it difficult territory. Perhaps I’ve left it too late.

Dave King said...

Your discussion of the need to redefine love as we grow older and the difficulty of doing so, detained me a bit as I read your review. The way I've tended to see it is that we become aware of other kinds of love, and it becomes difficult at times to distinguish between them, to see where the boundaries are.

There are many issues, no less difficult, raised by this book. I shall bear this one in mind. Not sure, right now, if I will buy it, though if I see it I probably will.

Mr Lonely said...

nice blog... have a view of my blog when free.. (A Growing Teenager Diary) .. do leave me some comment / guide if can.. if interested can follow my blog...

Jim Murdoch said...

Love is an old whipping boy of mine, Dave. I wrote a whole article a while ago about it. Shadow Child has been out for a while and there are copies on Amazon for 1p if you decide it does take your fancy. I actually wrote this review ten months ago and it kept getting overlooked so even though I was due to post an article rather than a review I decided that enough time had elapsed. I love getting all the free books but there are plenty of older books that deserve to not be forgotten and I think this is one of them.

And, Mr Lonely, thanks for dropping by and making a comment. I think you’re my first Malaysian, at least the first to pass comment. There’s really no need to plug your own blog like this though. As soon as any of us see a new name in the comments we will invariably click on the hyperlink to see who it is. Much better to say something constructive about the post you’re commenting on, something that shows you’ve read it and leave it at that. If people are interested in us it’s hard not to show some interest in them.

Art Durkee said...

While I honor the courage and honesty it takes to write a book like this, in no way do I want to read it. To do so would be wallowing.

My parents, who I gave up my career for to move back in with them and take of them while they were dying, died 7 months apart from each other, in 2007 and 2008. After that, it was a rush to get the house cleared out, things settled, and find myself a new place to live. There wasn't much free time grief in all that, even though grieving did happen. Sometimes you don't have the luxury of time to take on all your feelings in the moment they arise.

So when things got settled, I did a ritual of "a year and a day." I bought roses for a year on the days they had been born and the days they died. I put a lot of my grief into that. Since I completed that ritual, the pressure has been off, and I haven't actually felt much grief. I mostly remember the good things now—because I faced the grief head on, made a ritual out of it, and let it go.

Writing a book to deal with grief is great: it's what writers do, as you so often say, respond to life with writing about it. Writing out a memoir, or a novel, strike me as equally good ways to deal with grief. I don't think one is better than the other: what's better is to write through grief rather than not write about it. Period.

Now, this book strikes me as an incomplete ritual of grief. He doesn't complete the process, from what you say in your review. He leaves it hanging unresolved. And that is not something I want to read. It would be, for me, like climbing back down into a pit of despair that I spent a long time climbing out of. That's what I mean by wallowing. So thanks for the review, and I'll pass on this one.

Jim Murdoch said...

You’re probably right there, Art, about the book ending too soon in that respect. It’s hard to know when a story has said all it needs to. I’ve tried to write about the loss of my father but what I ended up writing about was a woman who felt she either was unable to grieve or unable to grieve right going through the various stages in the ‘right’ order and I guess that is me. I was sad when my parents died but I’ve always had this sneaking feeling that I never actually grieved. I was talking to Ken Armstrong recently about this and I had to go away and check the dates of my parents’ deaths because I couldn’t remember, not even the years. (In that respect I have always felt some affinity with Meursault in The Outsider.) I’ve never been one to memorialise anything and it takes some effort to remember birthdays and anniversaries. Some people might think I’m a cold bugger for this but I’m not. It’s just I have limitations.

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