Thursday 1 February 2024

Review by Sally Shaw of "The Erkeley Shadows" by Michael W. Thomas

The novel begins at the end of one character's story, but at the start of another’s, albeit unknown to him. Will, a police officer lives in a place, Saskatoon in Canada, where familiarity acts as a blindfold to change: "Through the window he could see the last stragglers being exited from the City Library. He smiled. There was Grace Popescul holding open the door as she’d done forever. The lady had a way with her, no doubt of it. When he was twelve he’d tried bribing everyone in his grade to return his overdue books. At last Dad had driven him downtown, frog-marched him into the lobby, nodded at Grace and gone to wait in the car. He’d been left with her wrath and what felt like the whole province’s population looking on. Man, she didn’t look a day older than when she’d torn those strips off him. But of course she was older and so was he and so it would go on. Except for this Cumberland Avenue guy." Thomas’s writing creates atmosphere and hints at the turmoil within Will that draws the reader into the story.

In this novel, the guy found dead intrudes into Will’s life - firstly, by the strange calm of the death scene that conveys an undercurrent of evil. This nudges its way into Will’s mind and when he observes the evidence bag from the guy's apartment left on the front desk of the station, he takes it. Inside the bag is a folder in which Jonathan has recorded the reality of his existence. Will initially thinks reading it will pass the weekend while his wife and children are away for Halloween.  

As Will begins to read the folder he’s taken to England and Jonathan's teenage years of the 1960s. He is introduced to a boy being bullied by a gang whose leader’s name is Wiznuk, who only retreats when Jonathan’s friends, Bevvo and Gordy, are around. "Inevitably, when my departure for Canada became known, Wiznuk and his apes came after me with redoubled zeal." The words of Jonathan become embedded in Will’s thoughts and start to lead him to re-consider events of his own childhood.

Will is amazed by the number of  pages Jonathan dedicated to that last summer in England and an area of land known as the Erkeley. "The Erkeley ran all around the school, almost, but was bounded on one side by a residential lane leading up to the main road. It must have been as impressive as Cannock Chase once, all ridged and hollowed." It becomes clear that the reason for there being so many pages about the Erkeley is that, as part of Jonathan's farewell, his mates arrange a last adventure there. "On the last Tuesday of term, Gordy waxed romantic: 'Hey, let’s come back here tonight, man. Mooch round the Erkeley after hours. Souvenir for you, Jon, golden memory: hanging loose, Erkeley-wise.'" During their exploration of the Erkeley the boys meet Old Tafler who was known as the Lord of Erkeley due to his having inhabited the land for years. Old Tafler is witness to a horrific event that last Tuesday evening, one that Jonathan hopes he can escape as he leaves for a new life in Canada with parents who barely register his existence, let alone sense all is not well.

Jonathan becomes a university professor. Outwardly to colleagues and friends he’s a good person. His true self hides deep in his mind, co-ordinating ways to right his wrong. "Often I felt like two people. One went into the world and did the living for the other, who was stuck in an endless moment of knowing." Jonathan’s life spirals out of control, as he is pursued by those on the Erkeley who become his "dark chaperones." They steal his present memory and dole out punishments.

The more Will reads and re-reads, he is drawn back to events of his own childhood, when his potential to harm his brother Mark is almost realised. Will becomes engulfed in the possibility of sorting Mark out. I find Thomas’s writing requires me at times to pause and uncover the different layers, before reading on. The title of the novel became clear as I witnessed the devastation caused by Jonathan’s decline into The Erkeley Shadows

About the reviewer
Sally Shaw has an MA Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and is currently working on her novel based in 1950s Liverpool. She sometimes writes poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history, her own childhood memories, and is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros, Deborah Morgan, Liz Berry and Emily Dickinson. She has had short stories and poetry published in various online publications, including The Ink Pantry and AnotherNorth and in a ebook anthology Tales from Garden Street (Comma Press, 2019). Sally lives in the countryside with her partner, dog, and bantam. Twitter @SallySh24367017

You can read more about The Erkeley Shadows by Michael W. Thomas on Creative Writing at Leicester here

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