Already translated into 16 languages
This is a record in just over one hundred pages of P.F. Thomése’s thoughts and feelings following the sudden death of his baby daughter Isa, only a few weeks old. He dissects his own desperation. Not in any dramatic lament, but in precise, carefully worded notes. He divulges few details of the death itself. We are not told its cause or which hospital she was taken to. Shadow Child is the story of a search, a search for meaning, for understanding, for something to hold on to.
Thomése has an unerring sense of detail, which gives the simplest words a symbolic charge. The first sentence is short: ‘Put up a fence today’. Not a sob, not a whimper, but a simple statement of fact, giving notice that the writer is searching for demarcation, for boundaries to shut out the world, which he has come to hate, to protect his own world by keeping it safely behind walls, to regain control after a period of total powerlessness.
This restraint produces passages which are both excruciating and magnificent, and will leave no reader unmoved, like ‘Pièta’, the chapter in which Thomése describes how his wife holding their dead child in her arms for the last time: ‘You got her ready. She was going on without us, travelling alone for the first time, and they would be coming for her shortly. You washed her, you oiled her skin, you dressed her in clean clothes, until everything had been taken care of and there was nothing left for you to do. And suddenly your arms were so empty, you lifted her tiny dead body and held her close, rocking until you were calm again.’
After Isa’s death, language loses its meaning for Thomése. Slowly, step by step, he must find a way to recapture it. He no longer trusts the writings of Nabokov and Flaubert, which had always served as his shield against reality. His own words catch in his throat, and he feels like a stranger asking the way. ‘It is like finding what could not be sought because it did not exist before the moment that it was found.
If she is there, then it is in the words that I wait for in the night.’ This tender, tentative exploration of language which lies at the very heart of Shadow Child is painfully poignant.