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From the PublisherCanadian author and designer Hodgson has made the "illustrated" novel her specialty--obviously drawing on her interest and expertise in design. As in her previous novels falling into this "genre," the actual format is significant. Her works have a scrapbook nature to them, with the texts augmented by photographs, clippings, drawings, maps, floor plans, receipts, and pressed flowers, all on heavy, high-quality paper. This time Hodgson has invented a mysterious, mesmerizing tale about a young British man who, in 1914, ventures on a latter-day version of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Grand Tour and finds the Middle East so fascinating that he is compelled, almost at the expense of free will, to buy a certain house in Damascus, Syria. The novel's conceit is that in the "present" day--which is 1945--this man, of course now much older, is forced to prove his ownership rights of the house that has come to not only be not only his shelter and sanctuary but also his lifeblood. His way of documenting ownership is to set down, in notebooks, details of his long association with the house he loves above all things. The sheer physical beauty of Hodgson's novel--so delicious is it to simply study the abundant and authentic illustrations--is buoyed by the beautifully sculpted prose. Grounded in real place and time and even architectural detail, the novel nevertheless soars as a dreamy, even ghostly, evocation of lost worlds and people--as an exquisite excursion back into history, borne on the author's keen imagination and creativity. -Booklist, starred review
Smoke and mirrors, magic realism, Alice through the looking glass, page-turning intrigue and extremely readable prose are all wrapped up in a beautifully illustrated and designed package. The Lives of Shadows is the latest offering from Barbara Hodgson, a Vancouver writer with such an admirable combination of skills that it's a wonder she isn't among the most acclaimed Canadian writers.
Set in Damascus between 1914 and 1945, The Lives of Shadows tells the story of Julian Beaufort, a young man who leaves England in his youth to travel through the Middle East, where he finds and falls in love with Bait Katib, an ancient house with its history written on its walls. The owners, an older couple and their soon-to-be-wed daughter, take him in, treat him like a son and eventually turn the house over to him. He has pledged to continue writing the life of the house on the wall.
Delayed by the war at home in England, Julian cannot reclaim Bait Katib until almost 10 years after he first laid eyes on it. It lives in his memory and grows in his imagination until he returns to Damascus in the aftermath of civil war, only to find his benefactors dead and their daughter missing.
Readers of Hodgson's previous books, The Sensualist, Hippolyte's Island and The Tattooed Map, will recognize what happens next as her trademark mix of the real and the fantastical. Hodgson is an avid traveller, and much of what she has discovered makes it into her work. Her intricate and elegant illustrations ground the real story elements and make the otherworldly ones all the more intriguing.
After 20 years of basically hermetic living inside his beloved Bait Katib, Julian discovers that relatives of the original homeowners are attempting to claim the house. Unable to find the bill of sale, Julian spends four nights at his study writing down the history of his ownership in order to verify it. All the while, he feels a strange presence around him. Lurking in the shadows of the labyrinthine house is Asilah, the missing daughter about whom Julian has obsessed during his stay in Damascus. Each night, after he has drifted to sleep, worn from the effort of writing and remembering, she slips into his study chair and writes her version of the story at the back of his notebook, slipping roses and jasmine between the pages. It isn't until his English words on the page drif