I can’t remember if I’d read “Mad Shadows” in university because I only got deja vu once while reading this book but it was enough to spark memorial inquiry into whether this was a text I was supposed to read, but didn’t. I studied English Lit and Film Theory, I worked part to full time hours at a hotel, and for better or worse, I was a socialite. I couldn’t read every text, could I?
I am confident this Marie-Claire Blais masterpiece was on my syllabi, though, because all of a sudden I knew what was going to happen and as much as I call myself a witch, I can’t see into the future. Like “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin, Marie-Claire might be an author I never thought I’d fall in love with in my thirties. (I can say that despite only being 36 days in, right?)
I’m not going to tell you the history of this womxn because it’s not my history to tell (and I don’t know it) but I will say that she’s Canadian. And she fucking rules.
I don’t normally curse here (an indication of how epic this little book is).
Marie-Claire is a queen of CanLit. I’m so glad Nick Mount recommended this 122 page heavy-hitter at his Henderson Brewery/Anansi book chat. Nick recently penned “Arrival,” the long awaited story of CanLit (a book like this did not exist before now, so thank you Nick) and, when asked, he touted that Marie-Claire is, perhaps, one of the most underrated Canadian authors to ever live. I trust him. He read a lot of books, and seems to have a level head on his shoulders. In accordance, I whipped out my iPhone and reserved a copy on the spot.
This book is brilliant. I highly recommend reading it, for the next few paragraphs might (definitely without a doubt) divulge some spoilers.
Commencing book love… Now:
This book is about binaries. It’s like sending the mind on a volatile teeter totter ride, where two sides of our own self are pushing against the ground trying to make the other fall off… and die. “Mad Shadows” is about the projection of ourselves onto something wild; staring straight into our own eyes and wondering how we can manipulate what we see, how we can gorge upon it, use it, add to it and benefit from it. It’s about how doing so might change us into something grotesque.
Don’t we do this every day on the internet? Reshape and project ourselves in profiles and photos and webpages?
This book is about how we are able to reshape our shadows into grandiose monsters and seek satisfaction in this ability. Isn’t this Facebook and Instagram and Twitter?
It’s about thriving by feeding on the affection of other people. It’s about mistaking this affection for love. Mistaking likes for love.
To provide some guidance, “Mad Shadows” is a fairly short book about well-to-do, alluring Louise, and her two children: Isabelle-Marie the undesirable elder, and Patrice, her glowing starlight diamond Prince. I’m not exaggerating. Louise is obsessed with Patrice. It’s rather unsettling, and it makes his sister sick with envy. Isabelle-Marie: the goth ghost girl whose resentment of the world makes her bitter and strong. She is thick and full of frustration. I used to be her; she, the extreme of whom I once imagined myself to be. I fell into her like a previous life.
Isabelle-Marie’s ugliness personifies the unspeakable parts of ourselves. She represents a collision of the knowable and unknowable world – as defined by civilization. “Mad Shadows” is about everything we hid in the rubble of the wreckage.
It’s admirable how Marie-Claire can pen such empathizable evil. While the entire family is unpleasant, Isabelle-Marie is the only one with a brain that feels activated. The brilliance of Marie-Claire is that she gives each character intellect and, page after page, describes how little they use it. But Isabelle-Marie is a bully, so why I am on her side? Because she is self-aware in a world where everyone else is asleep at the wheel.
“In spite of herself, Isabelle-Marie loved her daughter. She would rock the baby against her thin breast, feeling an intimate pleasure, the only pleasure she could call her own. But when she thought about what this child would become later on, an ugly duckling whom everyone would avoid, she was almost tempted to kill her.”
Isabelle-Marie’s consciousness affords us a sense of control, and we like that. We, or at least I, tend to retreat from the shallow, hungry world (the internet at times), and so I cling to Isabelle-Marie because she, at least, stands firmly on the ground in the world I am reading in. She has intention. She has motive. She has gall. Marie-Claire describes her as being so grotesque that my heart weeps for her, because who is this narrator to say what Isabelle-Marie is or isn’t? Everyone is against her!
“A genius at injuring all those who did not suffer as she did, Isabelle-Marie dominated her brother, overcoming his resistance with a single glance.”
At her core, Isabelle-Marie is yearning for love, despite existing light years away from it. Louise has taught her that affirmation of physical beauty will bring the tender comfort she desires, but her mother, too, is massively misguided. Still, Isabelle-Marie tries desperately to attain this. How? She deceives and marries a blind man, Michael, proclaiming to him that she is beautiful. She perpetually checks to ensure he believes her; to ensure he is still blind.
“He was happy to know that Isabelle-Marie was so unique, so beautiful, especially when he held her close. He bit her neck and was thrilled by her virgin laughter.”
Marie-Claire plants hope like tiny seedlings on a barren mountainside and we, too, want to believe in this false sense of potential. We’re so happy for her! She finally gets the attention her dejected, ignored heart deserves. We cringe when Michael says, “Soon I will see you.”
“‘Soon I will see you. I can already make out the outlines of your body, just the outlines. You are very tall, I know that.’ She thought to herself, He is a dreamer. He will certainly never be able to see.”
No, Michael! You can’t see her! She’s ugly and you’re shallow! Don’t you know that!?
“Mad Shadows” is a relentless tease; keen on keeping Isabelle-Marie in the depths of anguish because she is supposed to stay there, or at least it feels that way. It’s like Isabelle-Marie is the demon within us; the active, negative narrator that lies, seeks to destroy, and with whom we empathize with every so often because she is a part of us. We struggle to deny her happiness.
If Isabelle-Marie is our demon, what part does Patrice posses of us?
“The train was leaving town. Lying back with his head against his mother’s shoulder, Patrice followed the dappled countryside with a melancholy expression. Behind his forehead everything grew confused, like a billowing stormcloud on a screen. He watched in silence and did not understand, but his idiot face was so dazzling that it made one think of genius.”
The idiot Patrice, whose empty headed-ness does not stop their mother Louise from wondering what he thinks of her. He doesn’t think. The only sense of identity he has is what Louise has given him, which is everything he could ever do for himself. She spoke for him, thought out loud for him. He never learned any part of anything.
The idiot Patrice. The utterly lost and listless part of ourselves that only knows how to listen to what Louise asks of us. Louise – our civilization, our structure, our guidance, our false God. The one under which we operate mindlessly. The structure of our society.
Here is what I think is happening in this book: “Mad Shadows” is a really fucked up allegory for the western, contemporary world. The superficial, power-elite, societal hierarchy (Louise) in which we exist within like sheep (Patrice). The resistance we embody upon this realization and the small steps we take to alter it (Isabelle-Marie). The ways in which we succumb to a systemic lifestyle despite trying to adapt (Michael) and our innate urge to protect our homeland, even if the interceptor is a mirror of our mother (Lanz, who I haven’t even mentioned yet).
This book is better than watching The Kardashians, and it brandishes similar themes.
I could, perhaps, write a dissertation on this tiny book. The wound on Louise’s face that festers. Her vanity. Patrice’s jaunts in the woods. His reflection in the river. The land they own. The murder. The dance. The new daughter. Isabelle-Marie’s obsession to farming said land… I could dissect and rave about the ragged nature of this novel for paragraphs. I could predict the future with it.
Just kidding. I don’t want to predict the future with this book because I know how it ends.
“I am your mother, your best friend. I am part of you and you are part of me. Never forget that.”