If ever any book was badly represented by preconceptions, its Half Sick of Shadows. It won the Terry Pratchett Prize alongside Apocalypse Cow and was presented as a time-travel tale. Readers (and that would appear to be all bloggers who have reviewed this book) seem to have been expecting a Pratchett-esque romp through time paradoxes–perhaps Night Watch, set in Ireland.
Up-front then: this book is nothing at all like that.
Instead, the closest analogy for Half Sick I can come up with is The Cement Garden rewritten by League of Gentleman. Edward, the protagonist, grows up on a crumbling ‘manse’ with his god-fearing father, absent older brother, attached-at-the-hip twin and gentle mother. The novel opens as something of a blackly funny coming-of-age novel presented as an off-kilter Gothic fable, as the young Edward unfolds the grim details of his life in an entertainingly matter-of-fact manner. A third of the way into the book, he is sent off to boarding school, where the novel rapidly accelerates to its peak. The school section is both highly entertaining and cutting, and despite what other reviewers have suggested, Logan handles the time compression required to age his protagonist from 5 to 17 both subtly and imperceptibly (and along the way there’s a dizzyingly brilliant scene in which Edward and his friend Alf Lord – key to the novel but barely present – get drunk at an Irish pub quiz that doesn’t seem to quite exist in the right time and space dimension.)
Immediately after, the novel takes a diversion into both the tragic and the absurd, but unfortunately only one of these is a good thing. Returning home, it becomes clear how far away Edward has grown from his twin, who is tied to her home by the weight of a childhood promise to an abusive father and shrunken into the gloom of filth of her own surroundings. This is chillingly sad, and handled beautifully by the author, but unfortunately at the same time the time-travel trappings that have thus-far only faintly whispered below the narrative come into play, and they make not a blind bit of sense. The finale is ham-fisted and rushed, and sadly ruins what until then had been a flawed but intriguing piece of fiction.
It’s quite hard to pin down how I feel about the novel upon closing the last page. Until a third in I was only mildly absorbed by the book, and by the end I felt it had squandered much of its atmosphere and weight on an incomprehensible ending. In fact, its 300 pages feel like something that would have worked stupendously well as a novella in which the need for the narrative to be pulled together at the end could have been avoided and instead we could have simply feasted on the smartly-rendered atmosphere of the whole thing. That said, to all the reviews I’ve come across that have damned this book for not being Terry Pratchett: measuring a book against what you thought it would is a shortcut to disappointment, every time.