A Tense Psychological Drama
(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program. Trigger warning for rape and violence. The second half of the review contains spoilers, which are clearly marked as such.)
The Peak District cottage couldn’t have dropped into Lila’s lap at a better time. Still mourning the death of her five-day-old infant Milly – and haunted by the accident that sent Lila into labor two months prematurely, the details of which still elude her – Lila needs a change of a scenery, a project to keep her busy, and (perhaps most of all) some time away from her husband Tom. Long since abandoned and falling steadily into disrepair, the remote, diamond-in-the-rough cabin certainly fits the bill.
Adding to the cottage’s air of mystery is its unknown origins: this was an anonymous gift. Lila’s father, recently struck down by a heart attack, is the most likely benefactor; but the lawyers are holding fast to their client’s wishes, leaving Lila to speculate about the cabin’s original owner and his intentions in gifting this beautiful and seemingly untouched piece of land to her.
This is in July. For the next twelve months – “The Shadow Year” – Lila’s story alternates, month-by-month, with the events that transpired in the cabin in the summer of 1980 through 1981. The beginning of the flashback story sees five college friends – Kat, Carla, Ben, Mac, and Simon – visit the lake one lazy summer afternoon. Newly graduated and facing the daunting prospect of finding employment in the face of a recession, the friends decide to claim the seemingly abandoned cottage as their own. Instead of jumping on the treadmill to adulthood, they embark upon a one-year project to see if they can rough it on their own.
In Simon’s words: “Maybe the most radical thing we can do right now is to remove ourselves from a society that demands we sacrifice our desires for a salary. Here we can rely purely on what we can grow, make, or forage. We can focus on things we truly enjoy – the things that really matter. We could make a difference.”
The summer months fly by in a haze of camp-like activities: beer-fueled bonfires, leisurely swims in the lake, snacking from the plentiful garden. But as winter sets in, food becomes scarce and tensions mount. The arrival of Kat’s younger sister Freya further complicates matters. While Carla and Ben are a steady couple, Freya’s presence threatens to destabilize Kat’s already tenuous relationship with Simon – the best friend she’s been not-so-secretly pining over for years. Add Mac to the mix and you have two love triangles which threaten to collide in psychologically and physically violent ways. (It also doesn’t help that two of the four apexes seem to suffer from personality disorders.)
As Lila delves into the cabin’s history, repairs its bones and patches up its skin, and becomes friendly with the locals, she gradually unravels the “perfect mystery” that transpired in Peak District so many years ago. (A lifetime, you might say.) With the revelations – so unexpectedly and intimately linked to her own life and loss – Lila begins the slow process of healing: forgiving the many lies fed her by her parents; mourning the deaths of her father and Milly; reconciling with Tom; and finding the courage to build a new family, one that makes room for the living as well as the dead.
In The Shadow Year, I expected to find a murder mystery (maybe even a cozy), with threads of a woman’s journey for self-discovery in the vein of Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a little bit of both, but so much more. Fraught with tension and an overbearing sense of impending doom, The Shadow Year is a gripping psychological drama. While many of the pieces of the puzzle are hinted at early on, these revelations don’t detract from the suspense. Indeed, with Freya’s arrival at the cabin, it’s pretty easy to guess at what will happen; and yet the little details still left me breathless.
* Begin spoilers! *
And yet I feel like there’s a missed opportunity here. The Shadow Year could have been a trenchant look at rape culture; but Simon’s rape of Freya is only mentioned once, when Freya turns to her sister Kat for help. Devoted to Simon to the point of fanaticism (after settling in the cabin, Simon very much comes to resemble a cult leader), Kat not only dismisses her sister’s claims, but becomes convinced that Freya seduced Simon. Nevermind that she was high on mushrooms when the “sex” took place; that she does her best to avoid Simon after the rape; that she wants desperately to leave but has nowhere to go. Kat only sees Simon, who only sees Freya. Kat’s reaction to Freya is Victim Blaming 101.
This, in itself, is a realistic portrayal of how rape survivors are treated on the daily. Heartbreaking, too: orphaned by their addict parents, Kat and Freya are their own little familial unit. Or were, until Kat fell crazy (literally) in love with Simon.
The rape leads to a pregnancy, which Freya wants to abort (a decision wholly supported by Kat, since a baby will forever tie her sister to Simon). Surprise, surprise: Simon won’t help (or, it’s presumed, let) her obtain one. Forget Simon’s early talk of a gender-equal utopia (“We don’t have to fall into gender stereotypes here”); now a woman’s role is determined by her reproductive status (“We can’t always do exactly as we please in life, can we? Maybe she has different responsibilities now.”). This is reproductive abuse, full stop.
When a still-pregnant Freya begins to disappear on daily walks, Simon kills her pet pig Wilbur in retribution. (Domestic abusers commonly threaten, hurt, or kill nonhuman animals as a means of further tormenting their human victims.)
And after Freya gives birth and sinks into a deep depression, no one offers her the help she needs. Except perhaps for Mac, who makes plans to escape with her and the baby. But when he finds her lifeless body floating in the lake just a day later, Mac doesn’t even question whether Freya committed suicide, as her note suggests. Instead of doing the responsible thing – the adult thing – and calling the police so that they can conduct an inquest, her acquiesces to Kat’s suggestion that they bury Freya by the lake, quickly and without outside involvement.
It’s really difficult to like any of the characters, save for Lila and Freya. Everyone failed Freya in some way: Kat first and foremost, and in myriad ways. Simon the rapist, control freak, and narcissistic, of course. But Carla and Ben as well, for they failed to see what was going on under their very roof (tight quarters, at that), and escaped in the dead of the night without taking Freya with them, or even just sending help after the fact. Mac at least tried, but his efforts seem half-hearted and much too late. Even Evelyn, the adult next door, failed to get Freya the help she needed.
More troubling is everyone’s rush to attribute Freya’s emotional troubles to post-postpartum depression instead of, say, PTSD from the rape and being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. While it’s unclear who knew about the rape other than Freya and Kat (hell, it’s likely that Simon didn’t even think of it as rape; many rapists don’t), I have trouble believing that Mac didn’t at least suspect something. Not only was he her sole confidant in the house – he was sleeping right next to Freya while Simon raped her. So, yeah.
While Freya’s rape is in many ways the turning point of the story, it’s mentioned by name so infrequently – and its effects dismissed and overlooked by the story’s protagonists repeatedly – that it’s left to the audience to identify and interrogate the rape culture that led to Freya’s continued presence in the cabin – and her eventual demise. And I’d rather not trust this to the audience – not when we have people arguing whether Elliot Rodger’s killing spree was at least in part motivated by misogyny. We’re so steeped in rape culture that many of us cannot see it for what it is; we need Richell to spell it out for us. The dynamics of interpersonal and abuse vis-à-vis Simon and the others is fairly clear; the victim-blaming and reproductive abuse, on the other hand, requires greater emphasis. At least one of the characters ought to have called out Simon’s behavior and identified it for what it was: rape. Stalking. Psychological abuse. Animal abuse. Reproductive coercion. And on and on.
To add insult to injury, there is no real punishment for Simon or Kat. After Lila discovers the truth, the ending hints at forgiveness for Kat – even though she’s essentially robbed Lila of two very essential women, and the potential mother-daughter relationships she might have shared with them. Whether these deaths were accidents or something more, Kat’s toxic relationship with Simon remains on display throughout The Shadow Year – and Lila’s “healing” entails forgiving Kat for choosing a man over her own sister and daughter.
And can we talk about Tom the buttinsky for a minute? Every time he arranged a surprise meeting between Lila and her mother, I wanted to smack him upside the head. Sure, his intentions might have been good; but does it really take a family psychologist to see that Kat’s effects on Lila aren’t always the healthiest? Even in death, Kat’s slavish devotion to Simon had dire consequences for her daughter.
I also had to scoff at Mac’s insistence that there’s a right and a wrong way to slaughter an animal. Nothing says “respect” like a crippling blow to the skull. (Not!)
4.5 stars, rounded down to 4 on Amazon.