The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner

Arnold Ruben has created a memory machine, a utopia housed in a picture palace, where the happiest memories replay forever, a haven in which he and his precious daughter can shelter from the war-clouds gathering over 1937 Britain. But on the day of her seventeenth birthday Amaryllis leaves Warlock Hall and the world she has known and wakes to find herself in a desolate and disturbing place. Something has gone terribly wrong with her father’s plan. Against the tense backdrop of the second World War Sally Gardner explores families and what binds them, fathers and daughters, past histories, passions and cruelty, love and devastation in a novel rich in character and beautifully crafted.

The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner is a novel that I wanted more from, I wanted it to last for another 50 – 100 pages. Not necessarily because I thought it was brilliant, though. I’ll see if my words can explain why, in a coherent fashion. The opening hundred or so pages of the novel didn’t impress me. At all. I found the characters hard to like, the idea of a memory machine that allows people to live forever seemed incredibly unbelievable as there was little weight to the idea.

The story seemed to suffer from a much unneeded obscurity that, to me at least, made the floe of the plot suffer. We start by meeting Amaryllis, a troubled young woman who is rather boorish at first. We then meet Ezra a boy who has to live his school life with Amaryllis and is always at odds with this bizarre girl. They have a strange relationship in that Amaryllis bullies Ezra for seemingly no reason and never really endears herself to the reader.

Then something utterly atrocious happens to Amaryllis (Here I will say that this novel falls very much on the Adult side of Young Adult) and the books plot meanders through convoluted ups and downs until the halfway point. Suddenly the novel becomes something very special. Without giving away too much of the story, as soon as Amaryllis sets foot in the memory machine the book takes on a whole different feel. It becomes a very beautifully, melancholy piece of speculative fiction.

I found myself wishing that I hadn’t had to sit through the opening pages to reach such a crescendo. Suddenly everything has more importance and the characters begin to leap from the pages. The WWII setting comes into its own and genuinely supports the novel very well. We start to see that the central character is actually Ezra and his story of loss and love is utterly lovely. This is why I wanted more from the book, because I only started to enjoy it from halfway through I felt as if I was missing a large chunk of a wonderful piece of writing.

Away from the plot, Gardner’s talent for writing is sickeningly good and her talent for descriptive scenes and dialogue bolsters the book wonderfully. There are moments when you are utterly swept away by her words and sentence structure. This all leads up to a very pleasing finale that still left me wanting more.

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so torn when reading a novel. The first half of the book was disappointing for me, yet the second half was spellbinding. Would I recommend it? I would, if not for the quality of the writing but because others may warm to the characters and plot more than I and enjoy it more so. A book that suffers at times but equally excels and has left me wanting to read more of Gardner’s work in the future.

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