Michael and Catherine Hall promise to support each other after a devasting accident upends their lives. Michael now works in London as an architect who restores historical houses while Catherine, an accomplished gallerist, remains back in their home of Hamdean in rural Kent. Michael and Catherine were once poised to enjoy the freedoms that were to come with letting their children, Rowan and Rachel go free. After the accident, the couple have begun to question their promises to themselves and to each other.
Catherine feels at the very at the end of "a terrible nightmare." A young girl has just jumped off Hamdean's roof. While the forensic workers enclose the site in a tent, Catherine tells the detectives that it was clear that the girl jumped deliberately. In fact, the girl would be unknowable except for the damage that she's left behind. Though gone forever, in her absence she looms large over Catherine's life. Even the souls from Sutton Hoo, a near-by archaeological dig, seem more alive than the spirit of the girl whose body lies only twenty -feet away.
While Catherine's fussy neighbor calms with promises of chamomile and nettle tea, Michael remains in London, ruminating on the flashing voicemail icon, wondering what Catherine could possibly want. As he looks out over the city skyline, Michael tries to clarify his thoughts, but all he sees is a vision of the aspects of his life which he thinks are broken. Though Michael has endured fourteen months of hell, he's still managed to fulfill his obligations as father, husband and professional. The deterioration of his relationship with Catherine is about as unsurprising as "the demolition of the shipper's warehouse next door."
In Citkowitz's gorgeous exploration of a family in crisis, a glassy stillness and disquiet seep into Catherine, Michael, and later into Rowan. After decades of fidelity, Michael stares down the "fault lines of his marriage." He and Catherine clung to each other out of fear and out of habit. For the first time, he realizes that Catherine has made all the decisions while he has felt relegated to the role of "benign onlooker." Though after the accident they were bonded in grief, gradually "time staggered and crawled with each day." Catherine chose the country to be nearer Rowan's school; Michael preferred to be in London. Soon after, Rowan is gone as well.
Though the symbolic heart of the tale is Orpheus's journey to the underworld (Michael buys tickets to a concert performance of Monteverdi's L'Orfo), I actually see the story as a mystery centered on Catherine and Michael's deteriorating romance and Rowan's environmental activism and his insistence in attending an alternative school outside Canterbury. The sudden arrival of young Keira at Hamdean precipitates a sudden turn of events. The daughter of the previous owner, Keira seeks some kind of closure on her past life. Never in her wildest dreams could she imagine that she would meet someone as genuinely kind as Catherine, yet Keira's persistent questions about Hamdean characterize a shallowness which is at odds with Catherine's thoughtful and probing tone. Catherine yearns for the comfort of a daughter long gone. She's unaware that Keira might be nothing more than "a shallow opportunist."
From the peace of rural Kent, to the bustle of Catherine's South Kensington gallery, The Shades is a deeply a literary work that entices and at times forces us to engage and form our own conclusions. Neglecting to tell Catherine, Michael makes an executive decision to visit Rowan so he can somehow waylay the threat of his son leaving school. Michael hopes that a quick intervention will render that conversation unnecessary as he tries to convince himself of Rowan's success. Rowan is increasingly dissatisfied with both his parents. His views of them keep shifting now that he's making his own decisions. Through Rowan, we learn that Rachel was manipulative and her parents were "willfully gullible."
Citkowitz's tone is perfect, both for the novel's purposes and for the culture from which the narrative springs. The English have a habit of cloaking loss in reserved behavior, and this permeates much of the work. Does one ever recover from tragedy? In Catherine's mind, recovering is synonymous with forgetting, yet she's never quite sure she wants to forget. As the cold penetrates and the forensic investigators work with increasing urgency, the author brings Catherine and Michael's grief full circle, carrying through with her themes of sacrifice, loneliness, desire and disappointment to powerfully propel The Shades to its enigmatic conclusion.