In a decade when it’s become somewhat commonplace to divide a novel between several converging storylines, Chris Paling’s latest work stands out as one that manages to eschew quiet resignation to this modish category of fiction. Indeed, despite adhering quite faithfully to many of the facets that typify the trend, including time periods chosen to cleverly complement each other and tenuously linked characters, Nimrod’s Shadow sets itself apart through its ability to balance the gripping with the banal, the mysterious with the palpable. As it meanders through the tribulations and exploits of its two separate protagonists, the novel never compromises readers’ interest by offering a single, more obviously appealing storyline; rather, we remain equally enthralled by the plight of struggling painter Reilly, who has been wrongfully accused of murder in Edwardian London, and the endeavours of young Samantha to unearth the details of the artist’s fate during a stint at a contemporary Soho gallery. This literary equilibrium relieves readers of any preferential choice between loner Reilly and lonely Sam, leaving us free to focus on the rich and resonant details that make Paling’s work a patently satisfying read.
A substantial part of Paling’s charm is palpable in the novel’s language, which brims with elegiac overtones and always remains sinuously concise. A particularly stirring section depicts a narrow street in Soho as it appears on a Saturday evening:
The tall Victorian buildings were unlit and cheerless. Without the daylight to soften them the contemporary grey, black and olive stuccoed exteriors were unwelcoming. But the street was so narrow that even in the summer the sun never entirely removed the chill… Inside [the closed restaurant] she saw the menacing shadows of the chairs stacked on the tables. The hams hung in the window of the Spanish delicatessen across the street looked like human limbs; battlefield amputations. She shivered. This was a weekday street and it didn’t take kindly to weekend visitors.
Throughout the novel, weighty sentiments move as lithely as Reilly’s deft paintbrush, and details vivid as the artist’s bright temperas give way to trust that Edwardian London was every bit as grim as present-day Soho is gritty. Likewise, the dialogue – compendious and largely believable—solidifies characters’ credibility as consummate personalities: dreamy Samantha speaks languidly, while determined Reilly’s words are direct and composed; passionate Mountjoy, Reilly’s fiercely loyal companion, favors loquacious and exclamatory bursts, and calculated Keith, Samantha’s complicated love interest, adopts a soft, measured tone. Equally ingratiating is Paling’s seamless tone, which casually transverses the novel’s various storylines and dexterously avoids any sense of abruptness or inconsistency when the narrative gains pace at the end.
But the real linchpin of Paling’s success is the novel’s plot, which playfully sprinkles supernatural elements throughout a largely realistic narrative to create a capricious, teasing tale that refuses generic categorization. Part whodunnit, part fantasy, the story offers numerous opaque features that beg conclusion, all the while weaving sub-plots fringed with enough dramatic irony that readers are dying to clue characters in on their twisted situations. That eponymous Nimrod, Reilly’s faithful terrier, ultimately holds the clues to the entire mystery together is somewhat reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s orangutan culprit in The Murders in the Rue Morgue: vaguely ridiculous. but ultimately forgivable due to its playful undertone. In typical postmodern fashion, Samantha’s journey to discover why “T.F. Reilly had whispered across the century and she had been the one chosen to hear it” neatly parallels Reilly’s attempts to extract himself from a nightmarish situation; Paling unites the two storylines in a stylistic manner that trumps any need for generic consistency. We become willing to forgive farcical action scenes and improbable coincidences in our absorption in the enigmatic turn of events and desire to comprehend them. In this respect, Nimrod’s Shadow begs a form of reader engagement that transcends the trendy forms of fiction populating bookshelves today, setting it apart in a manner that is both conceptually timeless and tangibly modern.
Sara Veale is a sub-editor of The Literateur.