Author: Cat Winters
Release date: April 2nd 2013
Hardcover, 400 pages
Source: Publisher for review
Buy: The Book Depository
Some books should be sold with a companion novel, a cheerful, nonsensical one people would read immediately after to lighten up their souls. If there was ever a book that left me in urgent need of some cheering up (and a cup of spicy hot chocolate), it’s this one. But would I change a single thing about it? Not in a million years!
There are some things most people would rather not think about. I dare say Spanish flu is one of them. It’s a nasty scar in human history, and October 1918 possibly the worst month humankind has ever endured. Not only was the world desperate and exhausted by the First World War, but far worse was the second wave of influenza that killed anywhere between 50 and 100 million people.
This is the month Cat Winters chose to write about, and she did so with the surety of a seasoned author (I still can’t believe that this is her debut) and a thorough research behind her. In the Shadow of Blackbirds is a story built on the contrast between a young, innocent love and the war that tried (and succeeded) to steal that innocence away. Everywhere Mary Shelley turned, she saw nothing but ugliness and death. In her world, human warmth and compassion disappeared behind fear and mistrust. The gauze masks people wore to protect themselves from the flu are very symbolic of the period, and of the terror and distance between people.
”Oh, you silly, naive men.” I shook my weary head and genuinely pitied their ignorance. “You’ve clearly never been a sixteen-year-old girl in the fall of 1918.”*
Through it all, Mary Shelley Black is practically alone. Her father is in prison, accused of being a traitor, her 26-year-old aunt is superstitious and unsupportive, and her young boyfriend Stephen died in a battlefield in France. As a very unconventional girl who enjoys taking things apart to see how they work, Shell is quite used to a lonely life, but at least before she always had Stephen to talk to. He was the only one who ever appreciated and even admired her eccentricities.
When Stephen's spirit starts showing up next to Mary Shelley in photographs taken by his opportunistic half-brother, Mary has to consider the possibility that he isn’t resting peacefully and investigate the circumstances of his death. In this book, the brutally realistic and the paranormal collide, and the reader is never quite sure how much of it is truth, and how much is the product of overactive imagination (actually, the words ‘group delusion’ and ‘mass hysteria’ come to mind).
I’ve never given much thought to the things people hold on to in difficult times to alleviate their fear, but the sudden (renewed) popularity of spiritualism during World War I makes perfect sense, as do the folk remedies people resorted to to protect themselves from the flu. It’s very easy for us to be judgmental and ridicule people who stuffed salt up their nose, but in October 1918, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have done the same.
I don’t need to be a clairvoyant to see the future that lies ahead of Cat Winters and her debut: awards, critical acclaim, translations to more languages than I can name (and I can name a lot of languages). If you squint at the cover, you can already see the shiny William C. Morris medal in the top left corner, possibly even a Printz. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
*Quote taken from an uncorrected proof.