Creating Timelessness with setting – Neil Jordan’s Shade.
Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love. But men have killed for love, endlessly
Neil Jordan creates timelessness by weaving mythology into his novel, Shade. In this quote Jordan states the idea that similar murders happen over and over. This isn’t a new story we’re reading; it’s just the same one we’ve already heard.
I’ve chosen to critique Shade primarily because I love the book, but also because he plays with timelines, having his protagonist, Nina, meeting herself as a child and vice versa, and this play with time adds to the timelessness.
Nina, who is murdered on the first page of Shade; quickly goes on to describe the landscape in which she was born. When her remains are deposited in a septic tank, we immediately feel that she has somehow returned to the land.
Nina first meets herself as a child, as a ghost, newly murdered by her childhood sweetheart, George. Afterwards, he hides her dead body in a septic tank.
I would remain in a circle of old effluent within the sphere of a septic tank
Nina is placed in the tank on page 2, and in the final chapter and second last page she escapes out to sea due to a flood. The tank becomes a container for the story. Look, we are in this cylindrical place. There is no forward movement. Wait. Nina’s ghost doesn’t move on, she just circles back on herself, on her life.
The flood at the end, that washes away her beloved landscape and earth as well as freeing her corpse, feels like an exorcism. The story is complete and her murderer has been apprehended. Her life as she has watched it is now complete and she has come full circle.
Jordan plays with the mythology of the Irish landscape. He lovingly describes the estuary where Nina’s childhood home sits. He talks of Nina’s father building their home there.
The landscape is personified; the residents talk of the ‘lady’s finger’ pointing out to sea, the seaweed of her hair and her open legs. The people believe there is a spirit of a drowned woman; that the landscape is the drowned woman, that the land is her body.
Jordan plays with the recurring image of the drowned woman. Nina and her childhood friends make up their own mythology about her. They see Nina’s adult ghost, Nina’s drowned teacher Ms Schmidt and a real woman that drowned. Each become part of the mythology and part of the land. Eventually, Nina’s corpse becomes each of these women, and becomes the drowned lady; the estuary. It all comes full circle.
Nina is drawn to the landscape of Ireland. She makes an effort to watch it from the boat as she heads towards Liverpool. As a child, finds her own ghosts’ presence familiar even though she doesn’t recognise it as herself. She gives it a name and a story, and this imagining is what leads George to kill her, thinking Nina is the phantom that they saw through their childhood. He no longer recognises it as Nina.
Interestingly, when Nina has sex, first with George and then Gregory, she requests that they don’t look at her. Jordan doesn’t describe her lovers or the physicality of the sex; instead he describes the barn; the moon, the animals. Nina talks of the wheat chaff worrying her bum, and almost eating the chaff in her mouth. To the extent where I’ve re-read more than once to be certain what’s happening in the scene.
Jordan effectively loops back on each reference until we feel that all is one. By the last page of the novel, when Nina’s remains have escaped the septic tank and escaped out to sea, she becomes part of the landscape. She is the timeless drowned woman with seaweed hair.
As a girl she would sit on her swing and look out to sea, looking at herself, who then looks back. Life, is circular, and in that way, endless. The last thing she sees is George’s watch, then the circular roof of the septic tank.
Jordan’s characters also often talk of the moon, of the superstitions and the ways of the Irish women in her life. She begins with pronouncing eggs ‘egges’ with two syllables. Even her pronunciation is larger than life. And isn’t that how myths are created? Slight exaggerations that we eventually take as fact?
Think of the size difference between David and Goliath. I doubt that Goliath was an actual giant, but legend tells us that he was. The truth has been distorted, and somehow this gives a feeling of timelessness.
I attempted to research the mythology of Oxford for a similar effect in my own book Poppy, but the mythology and history is very factual and unremarkable. It is largely based around the University. In Aylesbury, we have the chalk horse and other neolithic features, but the University in Oxford has effectively overwritten the history of the local town.
In rural Ireland the landscape is more intrinsic to the history and culture. George, the murderer in Shade, is even a gardener. On the day of the murder, Nina, finding him lying on the frozen ground, says,
‘You’ll freeze George,’ I told him.
‘Maybe, but I’ll warm the Earth.’
‘Are you an Adonis, then George, in overalls?’
‘Adonis revived the earth,’ I told him.
‘He was a gardener then?’
‘Yes,’ I told him. ‘of a kind.’
Referencing Greek mythology, Adonis is an annually renewed, ever youthful God of vegetation. The gardener archetype that we find in our culture is one of nurturing, as we hear of Adonis warming the earth with his own body.
George decapitates Nina with gardening shears, like she had seen him decapitate a sparrow earlier that day. Gardeners will often ‘dead head’ roses to encourage the plant to bloom again. You could see it as being cruel to be kind. George loves Nina, but kills her. He’s both nurturing and deadly, which is the truth of nature itself.
I’ve been especially inspired by the abortion scene in Shade, as my protagonist Poppy also miscarries. Nina loses her baby after an old woman in the town aborts the foetus, and the time between Nina going to bed, and waking up in the middle of the night to pass the dead baby are written like an epic quest. Nina buries the body of her baby in the garden, returning it to the earth.
She gives birth to the foetus in the moonlight of the barn, again referencing the chaff beneath her like in the sex scene. By using the same location for both conception and birth Jordan is again indicating the circular nature of all things.
Jordan’s all knowing narrator can see it all because she is all. Shadows, ghosts, shades of Nina herself;
Shade. Of a bat’s wing, of a sycamore at noon, of an ash in thin moonlight, in the biggest shade of all. Nightshade. Shade of what I was. I am the oddest of things, an absence now. A rumour, a shade within a shadow, a remembrance of memory, my own.
Tellingly, Jordan opens Shade with a quote from W. B. Yeats (one of Ireland’s greatest romantic poets who was inspired by the Irish landscape) ;
Dear shadows, now you know it all.
- Neil Jordan, Shade (London: John Murray, 2004),