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The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
As soon as I finished The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott, I knew I had to write about it. It’s the kind of novel that not only bears up under multiple readings but rewards them, the kind of book that grabs hold of readers, pulling them into a fully realized world that lingers with them long after the last page. Endicott has recreated the milieu of early twentieth century vaudeville in such vibrant detail that, for the space of 530 pages, readers live there. Best of all, Endicott manages to celebrate the lives of these artists without romanticizing them. Here, readers get the full life of vaudeville—not just the euphoric highs of a performance gone right, but also the humiliations, poverty, venereal disease, and betrayals.
This sprawling and complex novel’s themes cannot be corralled under one simple tagline. It is a beautiful celebration of sisterhood (definitely), but it is also an intense exploration of the artistic life and temperament, a meditation on familial obligation, an antidote to existential melancholy, and a portrayal of various genres of performativity (both on stage and off). As with all truly fulfilling novels, it is about life, all of it. The Little Shadows is a feast of story that kept me reading happily for a full week and left me perfectly satiated.
The storyline follows three sisters—Aurora, Clover, and Bella—who, overseen by their mother, are forced to make their living as a singing act after the tragic death of their father. I fell in love with these sisters, and admired the way Endicott depicted each distinct personality with such sensitivity. She captured the complexity of their relationship with its love, dependency, jealousy, competitiveness, sacrifice, and trust. My favourite of the performing girls is the wild, charismatic and gutsy youngest sister, Bella, but I found myself rooting for all three of them. In the end, I was even more intrigued by this trinity of sisterhood than I was by its individual parts. The Little Shadows made me, possibly for the first time, mourn the fact that I do not have a sister. I bet Marina Endicott’s sisters love this book. With good sisters, this book seems to say, a woman can survive anything.
While the form of The Little Shadows, particularly its leisurely pacing, is reminiscent of the great Victorian novels, its philosophical underpinnings tend toward the medieval. As I watched these performing artists swing from the depths of poverty to the heights of artistic success and back again, I could not help thinking of an Old English poem with the refrain “That passed and so too may this.” As any artist knows, Lady Luck is fickle. Don’t get too comfortable with success because it can change as quickly as a simple spin of that Wheel of Fortune.
This material could easily turn melancholy, especially for artists who tire of fickle Lady Luck and her seeming arbitrariness. Endicott does not succumb to that kind of darkness though. The oldest, and in some ways wisest, sister Aurora explains that we must stay optimistic for the children – parenting is the truly important job and to succumb to existential angst is nothing but weakness and self-indulgence.
On insights about artistic pursuits, I most enjoyed the statements of the intense and brooding Victor. I could spend the whole column quoting him on the role of art. Let me restrict myself to my favourite. On the short-comings of art and the limitations of what it can achieve, Victor concedes: “We are only pointing at the moon, but it is the moon.”
Yes. Exactly. Keep pointing at the moon, Marina. You do it so very beautifully.