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Come Like Shadows, Welwyn Wilton Katz, Coteau, 2000, 318 pp. (originally published in 1993)
Come Like Shadows is an interesting and frustrating book. Interesting because Katz gets many things right, and shows us vivid details like the workings of a prestigious theatre company. Frustrating because Katz uses some elements of narrative structure that seem to force the reader into not sympathizing with the protagonists. On the whole, Come Like Shadows is worth reading, and a few caveats that I will mention may or may not bother other readers.
Come Like Shadows is the story of a teenage girl named Kinny O'Neil. Her parents wish to disabuse her of the notion that a life in the theatre would be glamorous, so they pull a few strings to get her a job low on the totem pole at Stratford Festival. The job is as assistant to the director, Jeneva Strachan, on a production of Macbeth, a play surrounded by superstition and accident over the years. Is the play cursed? It would seem so, as the death of an actor at the first rehearsal is only the first in a string of unlucky incidents to hit the production. Kinny assumes more responsibility at the Festival, befriends a young actor named Lucas, and becomes ever more tangled in the mystery surrounding the Scottish play (as the superstitious actors refer to Macbeth).
In my summary of the plot, I've skipped over Chapter 1. Katz chooses to begin the book with an account of the last few hours of Macbeth's life, and Macbeth's encounter with the three witches. Macbeth interferes with the witches' plans, plans that involve a magical mirror and using the body of a young girl as a new host for the oldest witch. I'm not giving away any plot spoilers, as this story about Macbeth is contained in the first twenty pages. Katz uses these fantastical elements in a matter-of-fact way in the present-day setting of Stratford. This cuts out the rather tedious section that sometimes afflicts contemporary fantasies like this one: namely, the section where all of the characters refuse to believe what's going on, try to find alternate explanations, and so forth. Kinny and Lucas accept the witches' power as real, a bit of character development that I found very refreshing.
Unfortunately, neither of the protagonists pieced together the evidence directly in front of them, at least until late in the book. Kinny and Lucas seem to be passive rather than active characters, and Kinny even complains about how this makes her feel: "Everything that had happened to her since she'd told her parents about National Theatre School seemed all at once part of some huge conspiracy, a plan designed to take advantage of what she was, to make her react so that eventually she'd be here on this bus going toward something she couldn't bear to think of. Trapped, no way out..." (257). I found it frustrating that Katz would reveal information to the reader in Chapter 1 that the characters know but do not understand for the majority of the book. Obviously not every protagonist needs to be a peppy over-achiever, solving all mysteries at first glance, in order for a novel to succeed. The fact remains that I thought less of Kinny and Lucas for their inability to heed the warning signs. Katz seems to be writing some sort of cautionary tale about wishing too hard for success, but even at that level, Kinny and Lucas were too level-headed for the story to succeed as a warning about their foolishness.
One other thing that I found odd was the way that Kinny seems to dead set against the director's re-interpretation of Macbeth as some sort of anti-Quebec screed. Granted, it's a non-Shakespearean setting if it's set on the Plains of Abraham, and I agree with Kinny that Canada needs less anti-Quebec rhetoric, not more. However, I'm pretty firmly on the side of the director being able to do what she pleases with a production, just as Shakespeare's history plays were switched about to suit dramatic (and political) necessity and personal whim. Furthermore, Katz has fashioned a rather mean-spirited end for Strachan, which I felt was over-punishment for her deeds (mainly, a weird idea for the setting of a Shakespearean history play). Part of the witches' revenge on Macbeth is that his noble deeds in real life would be erased by the slanders of Shakespeare's play, and I see how Katz lets Strachan stand in as a further perpetrator of injustice against Macbeth the noble human. But Shakespeare's Macbeth is a play, not history, and I was taken aback that people in the book, lovers of theatre, would confuse the two, and deny Strachan her own interpretation of the play, however wacky.
This printing of Come Like Shadows is a reprint by Coteau Books. It's a handsome edition, with some lovely cover art by Martin Springett. I hope the book finds many new readers, especially anyone interested in a vivid story set in a theatre festival. Despite my comments about the structure of the book, I think that Katz has created a worthwhile read with Come Like Shadows.
Last modified: April 10, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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