96. ‘Shadow Country’ by Peter Matthiessen

What a fantastic read! 892 pages, three ‘books’ in one volume, three different aspects of the same story. It is brilliant, simply amazing – one of the best books I have read this year.

Interesting to note that it was initially published in three volumes, but the author was unhappy with the outcome – although he felt the first and third books worked as stand alone novels, the middle one, which he describes as the connective tissue, became lost. He had been working on the idea for years, and eventually devoted himself to the task of reworking the three separate books back into his original concept of a single volume, admitting himself that he was more than a little obsessed with the legend of Edgar Watson.

Edgar Artemus Watson, 1855 – 1910

So, what’s it about? Set in mostly in the early years of the twentieth century in the Florida Everglades, essentially it is three versions of a ripping yarn about a larger than life character, E. J. Watson, born in South Carolina, growing up during the American Civil War with a family terminally damaged by that conflict, fleeing justice to settle in the Everglades and build a sugar plantation, gunned down by his neighbours who suspect he has committed a number of murders. And I’m not spoiling the story for you by telling you that – it is made quite clear from the outset.

It is also a scathing condemnation of the desecration of a unique environment, its Native American inhabitants, almost all gone, and its wildlife – for example, the destruction of the colonies of white egrets in order to adorn ladies hats with their plumes.

In Book One, the narrative is in the first person, with fourteen narrators – family and members of the community, and it is astonishing and compelling reading. The author captures the manner of speech of each of his narrators beautifully, and although the approach he has taken could have been a bit ‘scatter-gun’, he has made it work, and by utilising so many voices, builds a vivid canvas of life in the Ten Thousand Islands, and of the womanising, hard drinking, ruthless serial killer, Watson himself.

Book Two, the ‘problem’ book, is centred on Watson’s youngest son, Lucius, who cannot reconcile himself with the killing of his father, and who creates a death list of all the men present when his father was gunned down – with so many bullets in his body that no one knows who actually killed him. He visits those who knew his father to try and gain a better understanding of him, is reunited with his eldest brother, Robert, but better known as Sonborn – because when he was born, his father refused to name him, another murky chapter in Watson’s life – and ultimately uncovers truths even worse that those which the men who killed his father suspected.

And the final book is narrated by Watson himself, bringing together all the strands in a complex, horrifying yet enthralling clarification, culminating in his death. It’s a confession and a denial and written as it is, as a voice from beyond the grave, it has a stark and brutal honesty.

I absolutely loved this book on so many levels – the styles of writing, the story itself, the depth of the characters within it, the descriptions of the islands and the desecration of the environment – it gets a massive thumbs up from me. Big recommend!