I was drawn to this book by its beautiful, haunting cover suggesting a tense three-way relationship, and by the starting premise on the blurb that the central character, Louis Tumnal, has married his childhood imaginary friend. His character adopts the different spelling of Lewis when in imaginary mode.
As the story develops of this shy, gentle, socially awkward man, he gains confidence via a new real-life girlfriend, Kathryn. At the same time it becomes clear that his relationship with his imaginary wife and their imaginary daughter (!) has moved beyond Louis’s control.
A Haunting Timelessness
Themes and patterns of traditional myths creep in, giving the story a timeless, universal Everyman appeal, which gathers pace through to the extraordinary denouement.
I liked the mythical touch of giving everyone seasonally related surnames – (Au)Tumnal, Summers, Vernal (as in equinox) etc.
The story is told in the third person, with the focus shifting part way through from Louis’s perspective to Kathryn’s, who turns into a kind of detective who wants to work out what is trapping Louis and to free him of it. This change adds tension and pace. Although purists might object to such a major shift in focus halfway through a novel, it’s pretty essential in this case.
Although I had a couple of false starts while I got my head round the Louis/Lewis set-up, (possibly because I tried to begin reading the book late at night when I was tired), once I’d locked onto the principle, I couldn’t put the book down, eager to learn the characters’ fates and curious as to how this complex and unusual situation might be resolved. If this happens to you, persevere, because it’s totally worth it.
I also enjoyed the setting – mostly a thinly-veiled Oxford with a few add-ons such as a tram and metro – though I wondered why the author didn’t either stick with the real Oxford or entirely disguise and rename the settings. I found that slightly distracting.
However the dialogue is natural and authentic and flows well.
Thought-Provoking Questions and Themes
Overall, the story raised interesting questions about reality, perception and imagination, and the relevance of myth and magic to the modern day. It also had valuable messages about social skills and social confidence in the internet age, praising social media as a forum in which the socially awkward, including those with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism, can gain confidence and make sense of the real world, rehearsing before they launch themselves into society. Not that Facebook etc exactly replicate real life relatinships (thank goodness!), but I can see how it might help, and it was heartening to see a positive spin on something that is so often viewed as a negative influence on society.
Gentle, Ambitious and Satisfying
In summary, this is an intriguing, sensitive, gentle yet ambitious novel straddling the genres of contemporary fiction and fantasy, raising interesting, important and topical issues of our age, and delivering a satisfying and memorable read.
No plot spoilers, but the final line was air-punchingly good for me.
I would definitely like to read more of this author’s work.
To find out more about T E Shepherd and his writing life, visit his website: www.shepline.com.