“How Ivor would have loved being dead! It was a shame that he was missing it all.”
Three months after her husband’s death, Imogen Barnicott is preparing to face her first Christmas alone. It’s a relief to be left to mourn in peace. Things don’t work out as planned, however. Her husband Ivor left a complicated legacy of children and ex-wives, who all descend upon Imogen for the holidays. And there are some questions about Ivor’s death, questions his widow is at a loss to answer as she finds her Christmas haunted by ghosts of the past.
The Long Shadow is a hilarious and profound meditation on loss that gradually turns into a baffling mystery. The story is told through the eyes of Imogen, a wonderfully appealing narrator who may not be as reliable as she first seems. Her efforts to solve (or perhaps cover up) the mystery of her husband’s death while simultaneously dealing with her own complicated grief are never less than compelling. Sadly, Celia Fremlin had plenty of real-life tragedy to draw from, as her daughter and husband both committed suicide in 1968. Knowing this makes The Long Shadow an even more poignant experience.
The first chapter pitilessly examines Imogen’s status as widow. In one fell swoop, she goes from being half of a popular couple to a figure of pity and avoidance. No one knows what to say to her.
Worst of all, perhaps was the apparently unending procession of people who, incredibly, still hadn’t heard and had to be clobbered with the news in the first moment of meeting. Had to have the smiles slashed from their faces, the cheery words of greeting rammed back down their gullets as if by a gratuitous blow across the mouth…One after another, day after day, over and over again; sometimes Imogen felt like the Black Death, stalking the earth, destroying everything in her path.
Imogen’s observations are always on point and frequently very funny. Her friends feel uncomfortable if she is sad, and even more so when she doesn’t seem sad enough. “Grief is a strange malady,” she muses. “From what other illness would your friends—even the best of them—actively discourage you from recovering?” The chapter ends with a shock, as the grieving Imogen prays: “Please God, don’t ever let me forget what a bastard he could be.”
The larger-than-life personality of Ivor does indeed cast a long shadow across the book. We come to know the dead Ivor just as well as, maybe even better than, most of the living characters. An egotistical professor of classics who loved parties, women, fame, and himself (not in that order), Ivor went through life doing exactly as he liked, leaving others, usually Imogen, to deal with the consequences. “That had often been the job of Ivor’s wife—to make things not have happened.” Yet he had a brash charm that allowed him to get away with this.
While Imogen doesn’t miss his tempers and his messes, she misses him. He is always in her thoughts. She mocks a neighbor, who seems to glory in her widowhood, for frequently bringing up what her late husband would have done or thought. However, Imogen herself constantly does the same—though the things Ivor would have said or done are decidedly on the unconventional side. Despite Imogen’s genuine sadness, Ivor was such a trial to live with that even a loving wife might be tempted to murder him.
No sooner does Imogen have the house to herself, than many of Ivor’s equally difficult relations pop up to disturb her peace. They all claim it’s temporary for Christmas, yet everyone seems quite settled in. Ne’er-do-well stepson Robin takes over Imogen’s bedroom and brings Piggy, a hippie student with “boyfriend trouble.” Not to be outdone, Robin’s sister Dot arrives with her husband, children, cat, and endless family quarrels in tow.
Perhaps worst of all is Ivor’s second ex-wife, Cynthia, whose endless discourses on her medical, dental, and sexual problems are tedious for everyone, but pose a special concern to Dot. “The experts all agreed, for example, that children of Timmie’s and Vernon’s ages should be told frankly and truthfully about the facts of life: but did this really include telling them the details of Cynthia’s ex-boyfriend’s prostate trouble?”
Against all odds, this fractious group coalesces into something like a family—but it’s hard to forget that they each have their own reasons for being there. Imogen is left quietly horror-struck by how easily it all happened.
If only they could be temporary permanently. This was the paradox; difficult enough to resolve even without Dot’s logic thrown in for good measure. Because the temporary carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. If it lasts, it thereby becomes permanent, changing traitorously, under one’s very eyes, into the very enemy against which it seemed to be giving protection. All those indecisions which were designed to keep the future at bay are suddenly seen to have been decisions, albeit negative ones. And—ye Gods—this is the Future. This that I’ve got—now!
Rather late in the book, two different mysteries begin to unfold. Each would be intriguing on its own, but the fact that they appear to be mutually exclusive makes the situation even more suspenseful. The reader is presented with two suspicions that cannot both be true. What is really going on here?
In The Long Shadow, Celia Fremlin succeeds in finding both suspense and wicked humor in the day-to-day struggles of a widow adjusting to a new reality that may be more dangerous than she thinks. It’s not a typical whodunit, but a perceptive and witty story that uses a possible crime as a framework to explore Imogen’s efforts to step out of the shadows and envision a life of her own.
I totally appreciate that this sort of book will frustrate traditional puzzle mystery fans no end, yet for me it has certainly been a reading highlight this month. I love how Fremlin puts family relationships under the microscope and the way ‘minute gestures […] can have devastating consequences,’ as Chris Simmons writes. So this book gets a big thumb up from me and hopefully I will remember to try more of her work soon.
The Long Shadow is available in paperback from Faber & Faber.