Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

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Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: This is a sweeping, panoramic novel concentrated in and around the swamplands of Florida at the beginning of the 20th century. One man and his extremely eventful life has a devastating effect on the area, the local people ... and his long-suffering family and his tale is told here in unflinching detail.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 912 Date: July 2010
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 978-0857050151

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This is a big book by anyone's standards. Think of your average blockbuster in terms of pages - then double it. Due to its sheer breadth of narrative I think it best if I break it down into manageable book-sized chunks (the novel itself is sub-divided into a trilogy generally known as The Watson Trilogy). First off, there's an explanatory author's note at the beginning to ease the reader in gently, perhaps. I took a deep breath and dived in ...

In Book I we find that Mr Watson's reputation has gone before him. There's such a build-up to his entrance in the novel that when he arrives on the page, you feel as if you know him already. And what an enigmatic man he is. Matthiessen has an interesting take in that it's divided into chapters as each of Mr Watson's family members, neighbours and (dubious) friends tell their own individual side of things. So with the narrative always in the first person, the reader is drawn straight away into their world. A world of hardship and that is an understatement. A lot of the names are suitably old-fashioned American: Erskine, Mamie, Hoad Storter. And the language Matthiessen uses throughout is apt and adds a deep richness to the novel. He gets under the very skin of his many, many characters and brings them to life on the page. You could almost reach out and touch them. His scope is masterful and superb so, for example, in amongst all these hard men with hard names, there's a dinky little chapter running alongside entitled This Diary Belongs to Miss C Watson. Clever and very effective.

Matthiessen hones in on The Everglades; swampy, insect-infested, humid and to the sugar plantations where men are trying hard to make a living and bring up their families. Mr Watson moves in to the area and everything changes. For everyone. He's seem as innovative and hard-working. He's also seen as a bit of a threat. He comes with a shady past. And for some reason he seems to bring out the worst in most of his neighbours. Can he turn their opinions around?

Book II concentrates on the life and times of one Lucius Watson, son of Mr Watson. He's determined to get to the bottom of the story of his father's untimely death. The whole story is as murky as the swampy waters. But it's eating him alive. Lucius is a bit of a drifter, a bit of a loner and has experienced disappointment aplenty in his life already. He's not yet middle-aged yet appears all washed up and done in. But nevertheless, he sets himself a punishing agenda to right any wrongs where his father was concerned. A big ask by anyone's standards. Is he up to it?

The terrain he traverses includes the aptly-named Lost Man's and No Man's Land and as he goes about this mission he meets with fear and suspicion as he re-visits people from his father's past. These people, often the dregs of society, are living hard, thankless lives in a God-forsaken part of the USA so why should they bother to give Lucius the time of day? Or do they? And the stories that are told are truly eye-popping. And the most incredulous of all is told from a nigger who has known the Watson family for many years. His tale would curl your hair.

Book III opens with the young Mr Watson (Master Watson if you like). Owing to a vicious, violent father the young Watson has very little choice but to pack up and leave the family home. The last beating he received from his father rendered him unconscious. He may now suffer the effects of this into adulthood. We travel with him during his good spells and not so good spells. He seems to be a man simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. And we are given numerous examples of this in drawn-out descriptions. Matthiessen cleverly gives us Watson's angle of the stories told in Book I. And it's true what they say; there's always two sides of a coin to any given story.

In summary, this is a novel covering multi-themes in rich language. From racism to 'gator hunting it's all here. There's so much information and all of it is packed tight on the page. The native dialect comes across extremely well. Mr Watson left a lasting impression on me. I didn't want to let him go. But I had no choice. I had simply come to the end of the novel. First class.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this appeals then try Netherland by Joseph O'Neill.

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Buy Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen at


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