Book review: The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

(image courtesy Harpers Collins Australia)

The apocalypse is once again upon us.

Not so good if you like running water, mobile phone service or law and order and human civility; but great if you, like me, are looking for a fresh take on the end of the world.

With Peng Shepherd’s richly-intimate, vibrantly-magical The Book of M, we are given just that, a breathtakingly-beautiful meditation on what happens to people when their shadows start disappearing one day, a worldwide event that renders each of those now described as “Shadowless” mere husks of their former selves.

Sometimes quickly, sometimes agonisingly but welcomingly slowly, people who have had their shadow torn asunder from them – rather wonderfully, Shepherd never explains the hows or whys, leaving everything gloriously and invitingly mysterious – begin to forget everything from their names and loved ones to how to drive a car or what pasta is.

It’s a horrible fate, a drip feed of lost identity and connection that mirrors what many a dementia patient goes through, a phenomenon that, as you might imagine, rips the world apart, plunging civilisation into an abyss in which so much is lost and forgotten and memories become a rich commodity for those unaffected and those who are Shadowless alike.

“In the early days, when there were more wedding guests still hiding with Ory and Max at Elk Cliffs Resort and they took more group trips down the mountain to brave Arlington, seeking supplies or information, he had seen them. Written on shelves in stores where the aisles had been picked clean, spray-painted onto the backs of buildings. People who still trusted others enough to talk whispered from the narrow mouth of alleys. Have you heard about the Stillmind? The One Who Gathers? The traded food for information, rallied curious crowds to make mass pilgrimages into the strange lands to see if they could find out more.” (P. 17)

Curiously, the only upside to this loss of memory and sense of self is a growing ability to practise magic by those who lose their shadows.

Alas, it is not much of an upside in many respects since while the Shadowless are now capable of the most amazing, reality-bending acts, able to reshape the street layout of cities, change the looks of houses, creates walls out of hurricanes and conjures escape RVs out of nothing but imagination, the cost is what little remains of them.

For each act of magic, which relies on the person “remembering” a reality which no longer exists or never did – once their concepts of how the world was fade, they re-imagine it as they think it is, stripped of old understandings and constraints – the person trades off a part of themselves until nothing remains.

In the midst of this diabolical Faustian pact which no one signed up for, and only a mysterious figure in New Orleans known by various mystically-promising names may have some understanding of, sit, along with the rest of the human race, Orlando aka Ory and his wife Max, a married couple of five years standing who are hiding out in the remains of a luxury resort.

Getting by on a diet of scavenged food, both from nature and what’s left in the ruins of the cities nearby, the couple, who shared an extraordinary love and bond that feels richly true and resonant, are always on the watch for the loss of their shadows, an event that would mean the end of their closeness, a consequence neither one can bear to entertain.

Peng Shepherd (image courtesy official Peng Shepherd Twitter account)

But then of course, it happens to Max, and Ory is plunged into a nightmarish chase for his beloved wife who flees the hotel with a tape recorder into which she pours all her memories before she loses them.

It is beauty and authenticity of the relationship between this couple that gives The Book of M (a reference to Max and the rebirthing she experiences as a shadowless person), such an incredible sense of rich, heartfelt humanity.

While the world falls apart around them, and rumours swirl of a figure in New Orleans who might be able to make some kind of difference, both to people and the civilisation they have now lost, it is the story of Max and Ory and the affectingly-wrought cast of characters who surround them together as a couple and later on separately that make this fantastical tale such a vibrantly-compelling read.

You could be forgiven for wondering how a premise as out there as this one could be made to work and feel innately human but Shepherd manages it with ease, realising that the central characters, and their love and memories are central to making this pageturner such a rewarding read.

“He [Ory] looked down. It was a pile for Max. Every night that he spent in a carriage organizing the books, he couldn’t help it — he set aside a few that he thought she would like the most. Just for a few hours, while he worked. Then he’d put them back in with the rest, scattering them so they were as unfindable as she. But for that short time he kept them for her, he felt like Max was there again.” (P. 356)

And you will turn the pages with a drivenness, borne of consumately-realise worldbuilding, a narrative that cares less for what happens, although a great deal does, that it does for how it affects the people to whom it happens.

This is the apocalypse that is less epic bang and boom and more touchingly-intense human moments that become more and more precious as the memories that fuel them began to seep away.

At its heart, this is less a tale of magic and apocalyptic change that it is an exploration of the power and depth of our connections, of the way in which what we know of others and how that informs how we love and relate them, is far stronger and more enduring than we give it credit for.

With an ending that defies predictions, and a propulsive need to record and remember even as everyone without shadows forgets, The Book of M is that rare and brilliantly-wonderful thing – a fresh take on the apocalypse, inspired by one of four sacred Hindu texts the Rigveda, that acknowledges every step of its deeply-affecting, immensely-readable way that at its heart the end of the world is less about monsters and death than it is about how people preserve who they are and what they value.

In a world where we often feel, despite social media and 24/7 news cycles, more apart as a people than ever, The Book of M is a reassuring reminder than our greatest strength lies in our connectedness and how we remember, honour and value the fantastic gift we are given whenever we come to know, truly know, and love a fellow human being.

(image courtesy Harper Collins Publishers)

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