For the Hall family, the country house called Hamdean was supposed to be a retreat, a suite of well-appointed rooms where they could escape their busy London lives. Buying the front part of the manor in southeast England was the idea of Michael, who works in real estate, although his wife, Catherine, was wary of her husband's "folie de grandeur." Her skepticism, sadly, proves to be right — although not in a way either of them could have predicted.
Evgenia Citkowitz's taut new novel, The Shades, follows the Halls and their teenage son, Rowan, as they try to put their lives back together after a sudden and shocking loss. It's an absorbing book by an author who knows how to create organic suspense without ever overplaying her hand.
The Shades opens with Catherine being questioned by local authorities about the body of a young woman who has either fallen or jumped to her death from the roof of Hamdean. She's in shock, unfocused and disengaged: "Nothing could have prepared her for this surreal dialogue, and trying to account for the previous hours was challenging, as if she were suddenly required to tell a tale in a foreign dialect."
The reader soon learns that Catherine, a gallerist, was in pain even before the death of the mysterious girl. Rachel, the couple's eldest child, was recently killed in a car crash; Catherine finds herself constantly scrolling through her late daughter's text messages in a futile attempt to know her better, although of course it's too late.
Her relationships with her husband and son both begin to deteriorate. She and Michael have been spending time apart — him in London, her at Hamdean, both losing themselves in their jobs. Rowan has convinced his parents to let him attend a liberal arts-intensive boarding school, despite their misgivings that the school is too far away, and its curriculum not rigorous enough. Not long after he starts school there, he stuns his parents by announcing he wants to make a major life change.
Catherine is shocked when a young woman named Keira — a "waif with flickering eyes and acne-picked skin" — makes a sudden appearance at Hamdean, explaining that she lived at the manor when she was a child. Keira, the daughter of a French dancer and an English film director, takes to Catherine, who's thrilled to have the attention of a girl about the same age as her late daughter. Their relationship, perhaps needless to say, doesn't end well.
The Shades functions both as a thriller and a deep psychological examination of the life of a broken family. It's a slim novel, and Citkowitz doesn't waste a word; it's a book that's both intricately plotted and perfectly paced. The circumstances of the family's growing estrangement from one another are revealed piecemeal, as is Catherine's growing suspicion that young Keira might not be what she seems.
And that lends the book a sense of creeping urgency. But as well-crafted as the suspense in The Shades is, the most remarkable aspect of the novel is Citkowitz's keen eye for the dynamics of a family in distress. In one powerful scene, Michael, idly contemplating having an affair with his wife's friend, realizes that his marriage might be beyond saving: "There was a momentum to these things: once the wrecking ball was in motion it was near impossible to stop. Few would mourn what had been there before and only what had taken its place would seem to matter."
Citkowitz treats her characters with a rare kind of sympathy and understanding, particularly Rowan, whose cool exterior belies the anguish he feels over losing his sister. He's aware that others see him as callous, but prefers to keep his intense pain to himself: "He'd overheard whispers that he was cold and unfeeling, which was rubbish because he cared more about Rachel than everyone put together. He'd gone with her in his mind, living her last moments being mangled in a car — imagining her pain, terror, disbelief, before she became nothing." He's a remarkable character, and Citkowitz renders him with real love.
With its semi-Gothic setting and style, it would have been easy for The Shades to descend into cliche, but Citkowitz makes the book all her own. It's an excellent debut novel that deals heavily with death, but still feels alive, compassionate, and full of truths about family that are brutal but necessary.