July 2004

Colleen Mondor


Lives of Shadows by Barbara Hodgson

The best book I have read in the past year, by far, is The Lives of Shadows by Barbara Hodgson. I expected to love this book, just as I have loved every other book she has written. But Shadows is so much richer, deeper, than I expected. The fact that it also happens to be about Damascus during the period between the two World Wars just made it that much more fascinating. If you like your history served up with gorgeous illustrations, intrigue and romance, then you just found your new favorite author.

Over the past decade Hodgson has created a unique niche for herself in the world of illustrated literature. Each of her four novels includes exotic landscapes, conflicted and curious protagonists, and elements of myth and magic. There is not a single dry dusty page to be found here, although they carry the physical weight and design of books from a hundred years ago. The illustrations vary from collages of maps to postcards to designs from old anatomy books. In keeping with its story of a Syrian house, Shadows includes several architectural drawings and antique photographs. In each case the artwork and text complement each other beautifully, leaving the reader uncertain whether they should linger first over the story or spend their time drooling over the pictures. The best part is that each book is so unique that you never know what to expect as you open the cover. And with every new publication Hodgson merely raises her own bar of excellence a little higher, with stories that go further than the ones before and in yet another unexpected direction.

On the surface, Shadows is the story of an Englishman, Julian Beaufort, who finds the house of his dreams while touring the Middle East in 1914. It was not uncommon for young men to embark on such tours prior to the First World War, but Julian's intense love for Damascus comes as a surprise. After he comes to an agreement with the owner he immediately purchases the house and leaves it in the older man's care. He plans to return home, place his British affairs in order, and then live in Damascus forever. But Julian runs headlong into war while back in England, and later sustains a serious injury while serving in the army. Coupled with other family matters, he is unable to return to his house until 1925. He finds the original owners long dead, their only child, and the house's last inhabitant, missing and presumed dead and Damascus at the center of war with the French. This is where Syrian history takes center stage and where most western readers will shake their heads, wondering why in the world didn't I know any of this?

As a plot device, Shadows opens in 1945 when Julian finds his ownership of the house brought to question by a distant relative of the man who sold it to him. Such property questions arose quite frequently in this period, as the area changed hands from the Ottoman Empire to unwanted French colonizers to British invasion during WW2 to the shaky foundations of independent government from 1941 onward. Julian is forced to reconsider his claim of ownership, and more importantly how he has come to fit into the Arabic world he now belongs to. This brings on a dizzying array of memories about the original owners, the house design and artwork and the neighborhood's history. In the midst of all of this, he is haunted by the presence of Asilah, the missing daughter, who is mysteriously sharing the house with him while recording her own memories and making her own shocking discoveries.

Ultimately this becomes a story about love and death, both of houses and humans as well as an amazingly personal chronicle of one family's history of Damascus. For westerners this book will be a revelation, a literary package that manages to remain both exotic and familiar as it focuses on a world we do not know, but emotions we can all too easily understand. For Julian and Asilah there is a happy ending, although the reader will be left wondering just what the nature of that ending may be. For Damascus there are only more questions, a passionate interest from readers to know more about this place and these people. Hodgson leaves you wondering at the end of The Lives of Shadows, a satisfying kind of wonder that prompts further study of a place and time that has been woefully overlooked by the western world.

This review would be incomplete if I didn't mention Barbara Hodgson's three previous illustrated novels, all of which are fascinating reads. The Tattooed Map follows the journey of fellow travelers Lydia and Christopher as they embark on a very unexpected adventure through time in Morocco. In The Sensualist Helen Martin is looking for her journalist husband in Vienna but soon finds herself consumed by a piece of anatomical art that draws her across Europe and into the lives of an utterly bizarre group of scholars and mystics. Finally there is Hippolyte Webb, a writer and naturalist who goes in search of a disappearing island and then must prove his discovery to his dubious editor, Marie. In Hippolyte's Island there is nautical history, marine biology and a central question surrounding the nature of travel itself.

All of these books contain an element of romance or attraction between men and women who are searching for something more, something distant, something apparently lost forever. Some of them travel great distances, while others stalk libraries and museums and their own inner hearts for the answers to silent questions. These books are sumptuous treats, throwbacks to a time when literature and art were one and the same. If you are the slightest bit bored with what you've been reading, Barbara Hodgson is the answer to your woes. She will transport you; I guarantee it.

Lives of Shadows by Barbara Hodgson
Chronicle Books
185 pages