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Silence and Shadows by James Long
(Bantam, $6.50, 407 pages, paperback; published January 8 2002.)

Once upon a time archaeologist Patrick Kane was renowned punk rocker Paddy Kane -- a rock star with a secret, in fact, because cover scanthe industry moguls were convinced he would lose his sexy image if it were to be publicly known that he had a wife and infant son. As fame went increasingly to his head -- not to mention the booze, and the groupies, and the drugs -- so he listened more to the bean-counters' lies, until eventually, at the height of an internationally televised charity concert, he sang a hate-song targeted at his wife. Almost immediately afterwards he realized both what he'd done and what he'd become, and resolved to abandon the rock-star life. That was when the news reached him that his wife had, in the aftermath of watching the concert on tv, either carelessly, through anguish, or deliberately driven her car to the bottom of a river, killing both herself and their son.

Ever since then, Kane has been on the run from his guilt and his grief. Resurrecting that archaeology he studied at university, he has got himself a job with a seedy commercial archaeological outfit, and to his surprise he has been put in charge of a dig in rural Oxfordshire.

That dig, to uncover a Roman mosaic floor, is sabotaged by an unscrupulous land developer, but a mysterious local, Joe, who can sing but not speak guides Kane to an immediately adjacent site -- that of a rare Saxon-period barrow. Through a mixture of song and archaeology, slowly the story is pieced together of the occupant of that barrow, a woman who died defending the villagers from murderous attackers. While excited by the results of the dig, Kane is disconcerted by the passing resemblance Joe's sister Bobby, herself mourning a dead lover, has to his dead wife Rachel. But his obsession is less with her than with the seventh-century woman who was known in the vicinity as the German Queen and whose story, like her bones and funerary artefacts, is emerging from the grave.

Silence and Shadows is not really either fantasy or science fiction -- although archaeology is of course a science, that aspect is not stressed -- and yet one can hardly imagine that any devotee of the fantastic genres could do anything other than adore this book. That distinctive fantasy frisson runs right through it, so that one has the feeling of being constantly close to the line that divides reality from the Other -- rather as in many of the nonfantasies of Peter Dickinson.

The writing is often very lovely and highly evocative -- the opening few pages are as fine a distillation of destructive guilt and grief as any I have come across -- but also it is often very funny, as in

"You've not tried [a brand of rough Scotch whisky] before?" said CD. "Well, as they say in the traditional distilleries of the South Bronx, there's always a first time but there's not often a second time."

Unusually, the music-industry details ring true, and the song lyrics -- both those of Paddy Kane's punk barnstormers and the traditional ballad of the German Queen that Joe sings -- read authentically, rather than as a print writer's unmusical versifying. But what really bring Silence and Shadows to life are the characters and the constantly shifting dynamics among them. This comment applies not just to the major protagonists but also to a fairly large cast of bit players, some of whom perform that difficult transition from apparent comic-cut status on first introduction to real, three-dimensional people about whom one comes to care. They are a very sweetly imagined chorus to offer background to the song that is made up of the story of Patrick and Bobby and Joe ... and the German Queen.

While reading Silence and Shadows I found my mind constantly harking back to Peter Ackroyd's First Light (1989), which was also about an archaeological dig and which also sought to evoke a sense that a timeslip was always just around the corner. Although Ackroyd's novel got all the swooning broadsheet reviews, the fact of the matter is that Silence and Shadows is by several orders of magnitude the better novel. It is more moving, it is the better written, it is populated by characters who are certainly more real and vibrant, and it is vastly more enthralling -- indeed, it is as gripping a read as you could hope to come across.

In the world of art it can often be difficult to remember that a miniature can be as fine as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: the mere disparity in size distorts one's impressions of the relative worth of the two. In the same way, one is tempted to say that Silence and Shadows is not a major novel simply because its range is small, its vision focused on a microcosm rather than events that might shape the world. Yet that would be to misjudge it; it will haunt your mind long after you've completely forgotten whatever major blockbuster it was you last read. It is not quite perfect -- a few lines of the badinage between the amateur helpers at the dig grate clumsily (as would be the case in real life, of course, but that's no proper excuse) -- yet, as with a beautiful human face, such tiny imperfections can almost add to the overall effect.

Although this edition is an attractive paperback, there is a strong chance that you will, like this reviewer, decide after having read it that only the hardback will do for your shelves, because Silence and Shadows is a book you will inevitably wish to reread several times over the years. You might want to save yourself some money by buying the hardback at the outset.

Yes, it's that sort of a book.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 12 January 2002