Walking Through Shadows

BOOKED UP, AUgust 8, 2011Small towns always seem to offer a range of distinctive characters, and more often than not you can trace the links between them. That is exactly what Tara Manual does in this book. It is effectively a collection of short stories, each revolving around one of these characters, with some of the stories and people being connected in various often unexpected ways.

Spider Girl is a lonely teen who has built up a fantasy life and is vulnerable to online predators, predators like her seedy teacher Don Wand. The self-styled White Prince is a noted member of the community but disliked by many around him, including the young man whose father's life he has destroyed, and the committee member who sees through his facade.

The individual stories are beautifully crafted but the way they work together is brilliant. I'm not sure whether to consider it a novel, or an anthology, either way it is a clever work. The author has peeled back the respectable veneer of a religious small town and picked some fascinating characters to introduce to the reader. This piece of fairly dark contemporary fiction really engaged me and for anyone who likes short stories and fiction with a hint of noir I would highly recommend this book.

SPG Book Reviews, July 2011

There was a time when, in a small town there was no such thing as privacy. People lived side by side, knew one another’s business, and mostly kept one another’s secrets. In her second collection of short stories from Thistledown Press, maritime actor and author Tara Manuel imports modern entertainment culture to a rural world peopled by characters both familiar and fascinatingly unique. There are The Committee Lady, The Housewife, and the local politician, The White Prince—but behind closed doors, television and Internet open windows to apparent anonymity, and outside closed doors, the town’s residents run freed of their usual audience.

The mute Butterfly Girl finds a lover and a voice, but her bravery is neither seen nor heard. Few notice The Arab, raised in the town’s theatre and living now, in ironic permanence, in the shell of an abandoned bus. Walking Woman, who prizes solitary evening adventures, struggles against an imported culture of fear and finds solace only in the binding security of her husband’s arms. The gruff divorcee, Shadow Dancer, waltzes in the privacy of his living room, but offers the beauty of his naked, dancing silhouette to an anonymous audience on YouTube. Don Wand preys on rats at the dump, unobserved, and returns home to lure prepubescent girls online. Taking a desk at the front of his classroom, Don Wand remains invisible, an anonymous entity students hand assignments in to without meeting his eyes, until Spider Girl presents him with a story that pierces the boundaries between both of their carefully separated lives.

In each of the ten stories housed in Walking Through Shadows, we are introduced to the soul of a character, and the thing they would most like to hide. Manuel’s evocative writing is heightened by an edgy guilt as the reader is made voyeur, invited time and again to cast judgment or offer the benefits of doubt and mercy. We have the uneasy feeling that it is only a matter of time before they, like we, find out each other’s secrets. Slap-stick humour and astute observations of human diversity and depravity spark against dark and brooding content, catching Manuel’s characters between the shifting boundaries of privacy and intimacy these stories explore. They follow one another with such thematic coherence that they read at times like chapters from a novel. Manuel holds back, however, from offering an epilogue or wrap-up to her plotlines. Ambiguity and mystery are the hallmarks of short fiction and at the close this brave talented writer leaves her characters to their lives, to the moral leanings of the town’s Everlasting Church of the Evangelical, and to the imaginations of her readers. Walking Through Shadows is an engrossing read that challenges us towards compassion for lives lived in our anonymous midst.