Steve Goldblatt is a young boy growing up in the middle of Ohio in a town that has sharply delineated rich and poor sides. Steve’s family lives on the wealthy side, but he doesn’t want to. Abused by his father and neglected by his mother, Steve hates the emptiness of the high-income neighborhood and prefers the noise and life of the poorer one. The story is told in first-person, so we follow along with Steve as he meets and tries to emulate Dane (a bully whose insults and violence Steve interprets as love), moves through high school as an outcast, goes to college, and eventually returns home to go to and graduate from law school and become a successful lawyer.
Steve lives primarily in his head, so much of the book consists of his inner monologue. Steve’s way of perceiving the world is fractured by his parents’ attitudes towards him, and his mind is, therefore, a deeply troubling place to be. Though this book has nothing in the way of gore, axe-murderers, or any of the other typical features of horror stories, it still gave me nightmares. It was disturbing in a strictly psychological way. Even minor events, such as Steve having tea with his art teacher, were intensely creepy as seen through his eyes.
Part of this feeling comes from Steve himself. He is heartless and cruel, and, throughout the course of the book, he moves from simply ignoring friends to intentionally ruining people’s lives. But he’s not any nicer to himself. He hates himself and constantly works to suppress the parts of his nature that aren’t like Dane. He ends friendships and romantic entanglements because he doesn’t want to devalue his love for Dane, who despises him. Even as you detest Steve, you can’t hate him, because his perceptions are the result of abuse.
Kessler does an exceptional job of delving inside a damaged mind and presenting it in a non-judgmental way. His words are beautiful even as the things they say are horrifying. I particularly love books that require you to trust the author, books that don’t quite explain everything, and Shadowlands is a perfect example. The entire book is sad, haunting, and fascinating, and the epilogue is the perfect addition, showing that everyone has demons. This is not a fun book to read. It is, however, brilliant, and it will certainly stick with you.
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