Shade by Neil Jordan

The ghost writer
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The Independent Culture

Neil Jordan was a writer long before he became an Oscar-winning film-maker. His first collection of stories, Night in Tunisia, won the 1976 Guardian Fiction Prize, and there have been three subsequent novels. But, increasingly, writing, producing and directing movies ( Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, The End of the Affair) takes up most of his time. Now, 10 years after his last book, Sunrise with Sea Monster, we have the extraordinary Shade, which restores Jordan to his Irish roots and, more particularly, to the intricate emotional landscapes of his early work.

Anyone familiar with Jordan's work will know that his preoccupations and passions tend to resurface. He once commented that his first novel, The Past, came out of his obsession with the Irish landscape and time. Shade echoes those obsessions. History and politics are never far from the themes to which Jordan returns: love and betrayal, and the long shadows that they cast.

Shade, as the title suggests, is about a haunting. Not a conventional haunting, but that of a woman who haunts herself and whose future ghost is a constant childhood presence. The story is narrated by the ghost of Nina Hardy, and opens with her murder on a cold January day in 1950. Following the death of her parents, Nina - after a successful career as an actress on both sides of the Atlantic - has come back to Ireland to reclaim her beloved family home on the Boyne estuary near Drogheda. But instead of finding peace, she is forced not only to witness her own violent and undignified death, but to revisit the most significant and painful moments of her life.

Nina's life has been largely dictated by her birthright: sensitive, ill-matched Anglo-Irish parents, a lonely childhood with imaginary companions until she befriends two children -Janie and her brother, George - who live across the river. Then, aged nine, comes the introduction of half-brother Gregory, with whom she falls irrevocably in love.

Gregory is admitted to the trio of friends and the four become inseparable. But as they reach late adolescence, the relationships become complex, eroticised. They are all in thrall to one another, but George is hopelessly in love with Nina. At the outbreak of the First World War he enlists with Gregory, partly to get away.

Nina, after an unwanted pregnancy and abortion, leaves for England. She becomes an actress, makes the transition from silent to talking film, (Jordan is particularly astute about this period), and briefly joins forces with Gregory in London, where he becomes her manager. Their insularity finally collapses when she loses him to someone else. Thirty years pass before she revisits Ireland, buying Gregory's share of their house and rescuing poor, damaged George from a life of institutional care. But, three years later, Nina dies, the victim of a bitter act of revenge.

If the book has a fault, it is with these later sections of Nina's life, which are skimmed over. We know what happens to the adult Gregory, to George and to Janie, but Nina's fruitful and possibly lonely celebrity years are missing.

Yet Jordan's rich, visual prose is perfectly cadenced to this tragedy of misplaced love. Few writers can convey human loneliness (or perhaps "aloneness" would be more accurate) in quite such an achingly spare, unsentimental form. Let us hope that Jordan's screen commitments do not keep him from the page for another 10 years.