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Details derail first novel of planned trilogy

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Former Winnipegger Michael Decter’s novel, Shadow Life, is the first in a planned trilogy featuring Matthew Rice, a 60-year-old long-time government employee living in Toronto.

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Former Winnipegger Michael Decter’s novel, Shadow Life, is the first in a planned trilogy featuring Matthew Rice, a 60-year-old long-time government employee living in Toronto.

Decter draws on his own lengthy career in politics and knowledge of provincial and federal health-care systems to create Matthew’s personal history and work experience. His knowledge gives the story authenticity but fails to make Matthew relatable and interesting.

Decter grew up in Winnipeg, and is a Harvard University graduate and winner of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 2017 and Order of Canada in 2004. He has written non-fiction books on health care, investment, a memoir and collection of political stories.

Shadow Life

Shadow Life opens with Matthew serving as the foreperson of a jury that acquits a man charged with kidnapping, raping and killing a young girl. He’s forced to pronounce a verdict of not guilty because one juror failed to side with the others to make a unanimous decision. Matthew is sickened by the long trial and seeks isolation at his cottage on Quarry Island in Ontario’s Georgian Bay. While there, and on leave from his job in the City of Toronto’s mayor’s office, he mainly spends his time drinking scotch and thinking about his life.

This introspection reveals Matthew’s past. His father, Daniel, was a surgeon whom Matthew remembers as being precise and strict with his six children, of whom Matthew is the oldest. His mother Beth was more nurturing, and Matthew remembers her fondly.

His relationship with both parents is called into question when he gets the stunning news that his birth mother was a woman named Norah McCarthy. Travelling to Australia to meet with an elderly man who was friends with his parents, he finds that his mother was an adventurous journalist, originally from Dublin, who met his father in London soon after the Second World War ended. She died when Matthew was less than a year old, leaving his father to take him back to his home in Winnipeg where he soon married Beth, his high school sweetheart. She became the only mother Matthew remembers.

In the light of this discovery, Matthew attempts to sort out his childhood memories. “Matt was consumed with the unresolved mystery of his birth mother. Now she had a name, Norah… And now he knew his father went to his grave without ever saying a single word to Matt about her. He’d have to begin again to come to terms with his father, now dead twenty-two years.”

Matthew travels to Harvard to speak with an Irish scholar, then to Dublin to track down Norah’s papers which include her diary. He discovers his birth mother’s family history and learns about the roles his relatives played in Ireland’s volatile politics.

Shadow Life contains an overabundance of detail on specific areas such as how juries are selected and function in criminal trials, various types of motor boats and their operation, and the twists and turns of Irish politics in the 20th century. While informative, this exacting detail fails to bring Matthew to life and he remains a two-dimensional character.

The press release accompanying Shadow Life states that Decter’s trilogy will appeal to fans of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom books. Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom is a man tormented by his personal desires that conflict with his family and work responsibilities — a character whose failings are genuine in nature. In contrast, Matthew comes off as cold and unlikable.

Andrea Geary is a freelance writer in Winnipeg.

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