It was sitting on the coffee table in the den when I got to my parents' house on Wednesday. My mother saw me looking at it and smiled and told me she had already finished it and I could have it. Alan Bradley's new and fourth installment of the Flavia de Luce mysteries. So the books I had intended to read for the next three days were put aside for this one plus games and food and wine and other holiday fun with family.
"I am half-sick of shadows," / Said the Lady of Shallott are lines that stick with a bookish girl who also loves the Pre-Raphaelite paintings Tennyson's words inspired like the one you see above by John William Waterhouse so I knew the reference in the title instantly when I first heard it. The cursed Lady of Shallott who sits in her tower weaving the story of the world around her while only able to see it through the reflection of her mirror. Resentment and defiance are inevitable. And in this book, there are multiple ways to view this connection. The dead mother Harriet is of course a pined-for shadow by both husband and daughters. But Flavia herself is a bit of a shadow of her mother that her family can barely stand to look upon at times. The shadows all are unembraceable on some level.
It is just before Christmas 1950, and Flavia has determined a means of catching Father Christmas upon the roofs of Buckshaw by treating the chimney pots with a special adhesive of her own devising. She has to prove his existence to herself and to the sisters who mock her. This combined with an opening dream sequence in which Flavia turns an entire wing of Buckshaw into an ice skating rink that she traverses with wild abandon set just the right note of whimsy before the inevitable dead body shows up. It also grounds the book in the fact that despite all her precociousness, Flavia is still an 11 year old girl, one whose emotional range has not yet fully meshed with her cognitive abilities.
As always, the family is on the verge of losing all including the beloved Buckshaw, so the Colonel has let out the family estate to a film crew for the holidays and beyond. The famed actress starring in the film agrees to act in a short scene from Romeo and Juliet in the great foyer of the house and to invite the entire village as a fundraiser to replace the church's roof. But while all enjoy the event, a blizzard swirls outside and leaves them all stranded there just before Christmas. And that is when the dead body shows up.
All very interesting. But not nearly as entertaining as our protagonist's sly wit and maneuverings through an adult world. For fans of the series, Bradley gives up quite a few pieces that we have not seen before including a broader picture of Dogger and a touching view into the Colonel's love for his wife. Just as addictive as all the rest. And perfect for the holiday. Made me wish I was trapped in a manor house with a dead body and a whole cast of diverse characters.