Monday, January 17, 2022

‘The Book of M’ by Peng Shepherd


“No one escaped – either because they were someone who lost their shadow, or because they were someone who loved someone who lost their shadow.”

“The Book of M” by Peng Shepherd is an inventive end-of-world dystopian concept that is taken to the next level with the addition of magic realism. It could even be classified as a love story, albeit one set in a world that no longer makes any sense at all.

Hemu Joshi steps out into the sun in his home country of India and watches as his shadow disappears. This isn’t all that unusual – one day every year a town in India will have the sun directly overhead and everyone in the town will lose their shadows for just a few brief seconds. It’s an event with a logical scientific explanation. Only after those few brief seconds Hemu Joshi’s shadow does not reappear. This stunning event starts out as a fun novelty only to quickly turn ominous when Hemu starts to lose his memories. While doctors begin studying this medical anomaly, people in another town start losing their shadows and memories as well. What started as an interesting research project becomes a race against time as the inhabitants of more towns, villages, and countries lose their shadows and memories. Soon most everyone has become “shadowless” and the world is turned upside down.

“The Book of M” by Peng Shepherd is an inventive end-of-world
dystopian concept that is taken to the next level with the addition of magic realism.
It could even be classified as a love story, albeit one set in a world that
no longer makes any sense at all.

We learn how this development transpired and the outcome through four central characters. Ory and Max are a married couple who were attending a friend’s wedding in the mountains of Virginia when Hemu lost his shadow. They bunker in the mountain resort and for two years eke out a living by foraging for food in the nearby shadowless-run town. They believe they can live this way forever until Max loses her shadow. Ory is determined Max can retain her memories and beat this curse, so he gives her a tape recorder to document everything she does. But when Ory goes into town for a necessary scavenging trip, Max takes the recorder and leaves their perfect hideaway so that Ory doesn’t have to watch her forget him and slip into madness. Ory is devastated that Max has left him. Confident she is making her way back to Washington, D.C. and their former life, he gathers their meager supplies and braves this new, strange world to find her. Meanwhile, we follow Max through the living dialogue on the tape recorder. She joins a group of shadowless that are making their way to New Orleans where a supposed cure is can be found.

Mahnaz Ahmadi is an Iranian living in Boston and training to be an Olympic archer. She and her sister escape Boston through her formidable skill with bow and arrow. This ability eventually enables her to join a group of shadowed survivors whose main goal is to save books from the mad hoard of shadowless using them as bargaining chips. Naz and the group believe that books – and the memories and things they describe – are the cure to this bizarre disease.

The One who Gathers/The Amnesiac is our fourth survivor. We never learn his true name. Before the shadow event, he was in a car accident that left him with retrograde amnesia – no memories from the time before the accident. Doctors feel that The Amnesiac may hold a clue in helping restore shadows and memories, so he is flown to India to meet Hemu in the hopes that something can be done to stop the madness that has engulfed the world. While there he is given a history lesson in Indian mysticism that literally transforms him. He is the savior in New Orleans that everyone moves towards.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the shadowless themselves. When they lose their memories and identities, they end up creating their own reality with frightening results. Teacups fly in the air, roads disappear and men grow as tall as buildings. Why this happens is never fully explained but once you allow yourself to go along with the development, it provides good tension and conflict.

“There’s a difference between when the mind forgets and the heart does.”

The heart of “The Book of M” is Ory and Max. Ory goes to extreme lengths to find Max. And Max humanizes the shadowless where in a lesser novel, the group would have remained an evil menace. The ending is poignant and bittersweet and creates the most thought provoking part of the whole book (and I can’t tell you or it would spoil it all). Suffice to say, Shepherd gives us a fascinating take on what role memory plays in our lives, both on what we can bear to lose and what we invent to replace what is lost.

As always, I appreciate your time!

Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.

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