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Neil Gunn: The Shadow

This one didn’t quite work for me, maybe because it was too D H Lawrentian. By that I don’t mean it was replete with the earthy sexuality Lawrence favoured but, rather, the pseudo-psychology (look! I have just discovered Freud) and the strong undertone (and, occasionally, overtone) of brutal and casual violence, both in the sexual relations and in the overall plot, smacks much more of Lawrence than of Gunn’s earlier work. Indeed, Gunn himself makes a direct reference to Lawrence so he was clearly consciously influenced by him.

The story concerns Nan Gordon, a journalist who has been moving in Marxist circles in London. At the start of the novel, she has had a nervous breakdown and is recovering at the house of her Aunt Phemie in Scotland. The opening segment consists of a series of letters she writes to her friend in London, Ranald. In what she calls her hypersensitive condition, her contact and feeling for her natural environment recall the earlier Gunn and may well be the best part of the work. But then a neighbour is murdered – brutally – and she is plunged back into reality. The shadow of the title comes over her. Her strange and threatening meeting with a man who might be the murderer but who turns out to be the visiting nephew of a local resident and an artist and their discovery of another body do not help her and she gets worse.

The letters end and we move on to straight narrative. Ranald arrives, summoned by Aunt Phemie. His arrival changes the dynamics, not only with Nan and Aunt Phemie but also with the other characters (e.g. he gets into a vicious fight with the artist/nephew). But, while disruptive, his arrival does have the effect of precipitating various crises which lead, more or less, to Nan’s cure and to a resolution (though not necessarily the correct one) of the murders. But, frankly, by the end I did not really care.

Publishing history

First published 1948 by Faber and Faber