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Thursday, August 2, 2018

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The Book of M.

Peng Shepherd
William Morrow
June 2018
496 Pages
ISBN 978-0062669605

In this well-crafted debut novel, Peng Shepherd innovates the dystopian novel with surprising twists and turns. The plot is simple but hard to imagine: perfect for creating tension and chaos. When people start losing their shadows, it initiates the slow process of forgetting. Eventually, people can’t remember from moment to moment, forget to eat, forget how to do anything and they die in the chaos. For those who haven’t lost their shadow yet, there is little hope. It is just a matter of time. But there are signs and rumors that something is happening in New Orleans. As the different characters move toward New Orleans, the finality of it all closes in.

The innovation of this book is Shepard’s use of shadows to shape the devastation of the novel. The loss of a shadow is almost implausible, and it brings about the doubt, fear, and uncertainty about what is happening. And while some answers come from this novel it is left to ambiguity to add tension, fear, and loss in the novel. It is not only a stunning literary use, but it also is very imaginative. As people lose their shadows and begin to break down with memory loss, we wonder why some last longer than others, what is happening and why.

This novel is very compelling and deserves acclaim. There are times, particularly toward the end of the book, where things slow down easing a bit of the uncertainty and tension. It would be very easy to compound a few storylines and bring them together faster to bring the novel to a more succinct closing. This takes nothing away from Shepherd's well plotted, crafted novel and the complete uncertainty of what we can’t even imagine.

The Book of M contributes to the idea that subtly and desperation are sometimes complex and unknowable. When you look at the suspension and horror in The House of Leaves, it isn’t what we see in front of the characters that is so scary, but what we don’t know. We also see that kind of creepy uncertainty in The Color Out of Space by H. P. Lovecraft which takes the horror of nothing into a series of gruesome events without any real purpose. These two stories, like The Book of M. bring about chaos and tension the idea that perhaps we just can’t see what is happening to us. And in the case of these stories, these powerful things may not have a response for us. Shepherd's existential horror is based on something that we can’t quite imagine. In some ways, this keeps the novel in an imaginative plane, where we can imagine the horror, but we all see it in different ways. While this concept may be destined for a film, it feels better as an element of the reader’s own making -- a place where suspension of disbelief is easily maintained and the layers of the novel is based in abstraction, not in special effects and directorial choices.

In the end, The Book of M. is an engaging and creative dystopian novel that pushes the edges of imagination and creativity. It is important that we define this story as creative, important, and innovative outside the realm of the chaos, the uncertainty, and the dystopian elements. It is the end of the world, but it is all so stunning and vivid. Those things that bring us closer to the end, make us really appreciate living and this book does bring that power to bear.