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4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Shadow Country
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on 5 June 2014
This book must be the ultimate in the use of the 'unreliable narrator'. Except that in this case there are dozens of narrators, all of them unreliable. Therein lie both the strengths and weaknesses of what Matthiessen clearly intended as his magnum opus.

The massive build-up of detail makes for a rich and immersive experience; by the end - if you get there - you'll feel you've spent a lifetime among these rough-hewn and violent Florida frontiersmen and women. And therein lies the problem - reading the same story three times in one enormous volume ultimately becomes too much of a good thing.

With hindsight, I wish I'd read the three original volumes when they were published, with 'natural breaks' between them.

Surprisingly, for an author who became famous for his nature writing, there are few extended descriptions of the Everglades landscape, climate and flora and fauna. That is to say, they are are frequently referred to, but always in the context of how they are of use or hindrance to the unsentimentally tough-minded locals. It's all about terse dialogue, rather than poetic flights of fancy.

And those locals - there are so MANY of them. I suspect that Matthiessens research was extensive and thorough (and effectively recycled in the guise of Lucius Watson's research in the second part of the book). It's as if he felt he HAD to bring in the back story of every single real-life person in involved in the Watson saga, to let them all speak, as it were. This may be laudable in its way, but leads to 'casting overkill'. After a while I found it difficult to form mental pictures of all the characters as they came and went with bewildering regularity.

All of which sounds like I didn't enjoy the book - which would not be true. For all its faults, it's quite an achievement, and well worth reading - particularly if you've ever enjoyed the writing of the likes of William Faulkner, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy. As a western/southern gothic crossover there's nothing else quite like it. But be prepared for a long haul.

Incidentally, it surprises me that no-one has yet filmed it. A screenplay would - of necessity - have to take a more more concise approach to the story, but given the cinematic possibilities of the Everglades and Keys, and the classic anti-hero at its centre, this could (in the hands of the right director) make a great movie along the lines of 'There Will Be Blood'.
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on 8 June 2014
Having just finished Shadow Country today I cannot help thinking this is one of the greatest novels I have ever read. It opens up in all its dirty violent inglory a part of the world I have rarely thought about and never visited - South Carolina and the Everglades from after the Civil War to 1910. But that is only two thirds of this trilogy. In E.J. Watson's son Lucius' account of his investigation into his father's death, Matthiessen carries on through the trenches of the Western Front into the Thirties.
I love Matthiessen's travel writing, which is how I know him, and I was worried straying into his fiction in case I was disappointed. But oh no. This epic tale is incredible. What impresses about this book is the breadth and depth of imagination to realise the details of the plot in telling in 890 pages the interconnecting stories and views of many interwoven characters in one seminal event in the opening up of distant marshy south Florida, the shooting of frontiersman farmer Watson. I loved immersing myself in the vernacular language and imagining the sights and smells of this rough band of men and women long forgotten by history. The moonshine-sozzled life lived hard and short of the cane crop, the black labour, the hogs, the young wife and the revolver. Despite the shooting being described in the first nine pages, the pace never flags and the suspense still builds to the book's very last page.
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This book is based on the true story of a Florida planter and outlaw, E.J. Watson, who was murdered by his neighbours; it was originally a trilogy and Matthiessen reworked and condensed it to produce this version. It was entirely an accident that I ended up reading this whilst in Florida, given that it's set in the Florida back-country at the turn of the century. It really seemed to add to the atmosphere, being in and around the same places mentioned in the book, smelling the mangrove swamps and seeing the Spanish moss hanging from the branches. You can even visit Ted Smallwood's store - kinda wish I had now.

It's a wonderful read, given that the entire plot hinges around an event that takes place in the first ten pages of the novel. It's still broken down in structure into three books, one that covers the murder itself and the reactions and viewpoints of those taking part in it, the other following Watson's son Lucius as he tries to discover the truth about that night, and the final book from Watson's perspective covering his entire life up to the murder.

Watson is a compelling character - given that he's really not a nice man at all, it's strangely hard to hate him. And when you come to the end of the book and the story's over (although it's over from the start for Watson) you're sad to leave him, in a way. But that's part of the strength of this book - there are no villains as much as there are no heroes, and Matthiessen manages to make you feel sympathy and understanding for almost every character, regardless of where they stand and what they've done. It's quite an achievement, but then this is quite a book.
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on 6 December 2010
Richard Ford mentioned that Peter Matthiessen was the reason a lot of his generation of writers wanted to write. I can see why he would say that. In the remote 19th and early 20th Century southern Florida coast of Shadow Country, with its claustrophobically winding waterways, cloying humidity, ragged skiffs, tangled mangroves and, especially, in the rich vernacular voices of his characters, Mathiessen creates a tactile and emotional/psychological fictional space that will not let you leave once you enter it.

This is classic American Fiction in the tradition of great writers like Faulkner and Hemingway, with a particularly late 20th Century and early 21st Century sensibility about America, what it is, was, and could have been. Simply a stunning and major work.
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on 30 July 2010
I've only had this book a few days and have read less than 200 pages, but I am completely hooked. I knew nothing about the subject before reading a review in a local newspaper, and was intrigued so had to buy it. I can understand why Peter Matthiessen felt like he had to keep working on the story long after the original books were published in order to finish it off the way he wanted. The separate voice he creates for each character is so realistic and authentic that the author must have spent an awfully long time inside the head of each one. It must have been totally addictive.
Even though each chapter is written from the point of view of a different person, there is a common style all the way through that not only gets the author's voice across, but kind of shows how similar all the characters are deep down, that where they come from and how they've lived has influenced what they say and how they behave. It's an era and an area that I know hardly anything about, but the description is so good that I can see these places in my mind and I feel like I understand something about them.
I'm also really surprised at how I've been manipulated (not in a bad way) into feeling sympathy for the right character at the right time, so that each event brings out a proper emotional reaction in me. This is a real skill that not every writer has - I know I've been really disappointed in some books when they've failed to draw me in.
With the weekend coming up, I'm probably going to turn my phone off, curl up, get the coffee machine on, and finish this book. Can't wait!
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on 31 July 2014
900 pages of glorious, unrelenting misery. Like Germinal minus the laughs.
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VINE VOICEon 25 December 2010
This book is a fictionalised account of events leading up to the lynching of E.J. Watson, by a group of his neighbours. The action takes place on the southwest coast of Florida round about the turn of the 20thC. At that time, this was pioneer country, with no real roads and the nearest law officer a day or more away.

Watson was a larger than life character, both liked and feared by those around him. He was a successful farmer and businessman, running a sugar cane plantation and trading in cane syrup. He could be generous to his neighbours, and was widely admired; but he also had a reputation as a hell-raiser and people were wary of his temper - and of the gun he always carried.

Shadow Country is written in three parts (called "books" by the author). The first book is told in the first person by as many as 12 different narrators, all giving their view of events. This narrative hangs together quite well, giving a more or less sequential account, whilst offering the reader different angles and points of view.

The second book is told in the third person and follows the quest by Watson's son, now a historian, to find out the truth of what happened. Book III provides a first person account by Watson himself - thus providing the reader with a full resolution.

I read only the first book of the three. There is much that is positive about this book; the narrative flows well from one person to the next, and doesn't feel disjointed, despite the numerous short chapters. Matthiessen also excels at descriptive writing, and I felt I learned a great deal about the ecology of the region and what it would have been like to live there between 1890 and 1910. However, I found the story slow to develop, and I never really felt empathy for the characters - with the result that I didn't particularly care what happened to any of them. I read to the end of the first book to see how events played out, but I wasn't sufficiently interested in to continue with books II and III.

If you are interested in learning about the history and ecology of south west Florida and the mysteries surrounding E.J. Watson's life and death, then this book provides a wealth of interesting material. However, if you are hoping for a thriller, then you will probably be disappointed.
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on 27 January 2011
Let me state straight away that Mattiessen can write. And he has a passion for this tale that is, frankly, borderline obsessional. He really has put a huge amount of effort into this - the background research alone is formidable. Unfortunately, that is also at the root of its problems. Let me explain.

The protagonist is E. J. Watson, a plantation owner in the south Florida everglades at the turn of the Twentieth Century. An off-comer to a closed community, his unaccounted prosperity led to much gossip, as did his ferocious temper and (alleged) involvement in several murders. Local sensibilities were so aroused that in 1910 he was himself murdered by a mob. That, baldly, is all that is exactly known about him.

"Shadow Country" tells this story three times, each from a different person's viewpoint, using dozens of narrators. This accounts for every possible permutation of what could have happened, but it also means the novel never actually comes to any conclusion. And as there are so few hard facts about Watson's life and times the author is effectively commenting on his own suppositions, which is a bit of a nerve.

On a technical level, the rapidly changing viewpoints, and the extensive use of local slang, only add to the confusion. Even worse, Matthiessen clearly despises the people he is writing about - most of them regularly "hang themselves" during their turn to narrate. But consider - he cannot possibly know the actual people of the time. The characters they have become in his "novel" are nothing more than aggregates of his own personal prejudices and dislikes. Let me illustrate again.

"Shadow Country" was originally written as one enormous 1500 page novel. The publishers, not surprisingly, released it as three separate volumes in the 1990's. There was much critical acclaim, but Mr Matthiessen was deeply burdened by this evisceration of his work, and resolved to spend a year, which became seven, rewriting it. But this was ok, because by trimming it down he increased both the depth and intensity of the tale.

I know all this because he tells me so at some length in the forward, culminating in the strange assertion that the book has no message, which he then immediately follows with a diatribe about how it exposes the evils of: inherent racism; trying to make our lives better (and this is bad in what way?); destruction of the environment; and the powerlessness of the irrelevant (?) people in the story (presumably their "irrelevance" doesn't extend to their story not being worth telling).

Now, if you are going to write a novel, it should have a purpose, but servicing the political vanities of the author is not a valid one. Most people read novels primarily to be entertained. If they can be introduced to new ideas and concepts at the same time, that's excellent. But preaching at them is really not on, if only because authors who do that are only going to appeal to those who agree with them already. In short, this drivel is nothing more than self-obsessional elitist pseudo-intellectualism that you don't so much read as wade through, and are expected to applaud at the end. Well, I'm sorry, but these are attitudes that need to be stomped on hard. Readers are doing authors a favor in reading their work, not the other way round. And historical people are real people - they don't become something else just because a talented writer can makes them say and do things that HE wants. That's an incredibly arrogant thing to do. More is expected of historical novels.
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