“Name one thing. One thing that you are truly fearful of,” the central character of Kathy-Diane Leveille’s haunting and intricate psychological thriller Let the Shadows Fall Behind You is asked.
Her surprising answer: “’Sliding.’ Into people, beneath their skins, she clarified silently. Needing them, loving them, sliding into the hole, the darkness left behind when they’re gone. … ‘Sliding backwards. Not moving forwards. Stagnating. That’s it.’”
That prideful sense of aloofness and elusiveness and a feeling that going back home means growing stagnant may be what’s holding up Brannagh Maloney in picking up the pieces of a once-promising career and relationship and returning to her hometown, but there’s much more to the story than escape and hitting the roads of Canada once again. In Brannagh’s confrontation with a turmoil of emotions and a troubled past, secrets abound and uncertainty dogs every move when she leaves her stint as a cataloguer for prominent environmentalist Nikolai Mirsky – with whom she had lived and loved — after he suddenly disappears.
This of course is a matter of momentous heartbreak and confusion, though a guarded and complex Brannagh would offer a seemingly cynical, protests-too-much contention to others that “all we shared was birds and orgasms.” Perhaps closer to the mark is the vulnerability she admits to herself in more reflective times:
Maybe love is supposed to be confusing. Maybe there is no tacking it down. Maybe it is as ambiguous as the bumbling humans who are dense enough to leave its barbed hook snarled in their contracting hearts.
Bewilderment and baggage in tow, but with no other place to go, Brannagh reluctantly accepts a long-standing invitation of her girlhood friends Annie, Tish, and Dianne for a reunion of their “secret” eighth grade club. It might be a matter of “sliding,” but it’s a slippery slope she’s negotiating as she is soon reminded of why her hosts should never have expected a timely and affirmative RSVP. When Brannagh was three-years-old her father had vanished, never to be seen again, while, similarly, her eccentric mother – always with one step out the door – goes the extra self-imposed exile and was later found murdered under mysterious circumstances, in the exact location that Annie's brother had also been found dead years earlier, posed in the same macabre manner.
Want literary atmosphere? Shadows is soaking in it as Brannagh then goes on to live with her Aunt Thelma and her grandfather and other family members in a large four-story house with a “Nervous Clinic” on the top floor, down the street from the Provincial Asylum. Not a conducive place for Brannagh's formative years when she needed to keep her nightmares and growing pains under wraps, especially as she was expected to help out with the patients and obey her stern psychiatrist grandfather, who would lock her in the cellar as punishment for the least infraction.
But yesterday turns today in the turn of a page, and the trauma and tragedies that ensued from Brannagh's youth – ones that hold oppressive feelings of culpability for her and that had the involvement of and implications from her pals — gives our protagonist the what-doesn't-kill-you resilience and opportunity to confront her grandfather in an attempt to find out the truth about the dark and violent past and his callous treatment of her and her family. Ultimately, what may emerge are some horrific revelations at the end of some hairpin twists and turns. But will Brannagh be able to reconcile herself with memories that “refused to stop playing over and over in her head, each as vivid and painful as if it had happened only hours before”? And can coming to terms with the past and gaining knowledge of her present circumstances allow her to “slide” forwards, without that fear of stagnating?
Kathy-Diane Leveille offers a well-crafted, incisive, and beautifully expressive debut novel of gothic suspense and taut mystery, sustaining the intrigue by deftly juggling past and present, running the flashback to foreshadow gamut. The exquisite yet penetrating prose is never superfluous, being always in service of propelling the plot – or the subplots, rather, since the many secondary characters have their own pertinent stories. And though the fragmented back-and-forth narrative of Let the Shadows Fall Behind You may occasionally detract from continuity, Leveille skillfully tells these interwoven tales as the novel — easily and appealingly instilling a sense of place in its Canadian setting — wraps you in its intelligent escapism, seemingly bounding you within the binding. “We are all conspirators, aiders and abetters, schemers, plotters, traitors,” asserts the narrator. “We fall short and recoil in horror then secretly relish a tantalizing familiar corner of the personal drama that unfolds.”
What better and more authorial enticement can you have to curl up and lose yourself in the pages of a book?