The thought of a widespread health disaster is enough to terrify me, even today, where medicine and science is at its most advanced. Cat Winters’ debut standalone is set during 1918, the year of the infamous influenza outbreak, and the final moments of the First World War. It is a horrific period of time – one that is difficult to truly forget, despite having taken place nearly a century ago – and an aptly atmospheric setting for In the Shadow of Blackbirds.
It is evident that Winters did her research here (as consolidated by the brilliant author’s note). With gauze masks covering three quarters of the face, public health warnings and signs littering the streets, and coffins spilling out of undertakers’ homes, the so-called Spanish Flu is disturbingly ever-present throughout this book. It’s a time when crowds were to be avoided, spitting was unacceptable, and coughing and sneezing were sure signs of something awful. Even kissing was discouraged, lest any level of intimacy or physical contact aid in the spread of the disease. Winters uses this setting wonderfully and with skill to build together a vivid picture of the paranoia and fear heightened during this time. There is a distinct and fitting bleakness to the story, further aided by the war effort and its contribution to the death toll.
It’s in this time of confusion and sickness that we meet our young protagonist, Mary Shelley Black. Her childhood friend and sweetheart is the latest victim of the war, with his death and unexpected appearance in a spirit photograph creating the basis for the plot. Séances, unexplained phenomena and ghostly apparitions flit in and out of the reality of Mary Shelley’s life, adding an appropriately chilling paranormal edge to the story. It is not too difficult to empathise with Mary Shelley – to fall in love with her, even – and understand her frustration with the war and appreciate her resilience in a time that no sixteen-year-old should have to endure. She is an admirable heroine, believable and compassionate, but not startlingly radical. Cat Winters is clever to subtly weave in contemporary views that a modern audience will undoubtedly agree with, without having to make Mary Shelley a walking piece of symbolism.
My affection for the characters in this book is not limited to the protagonist; Aunt Eva and Stephen create just as much of an impression, and both in very different ways. Eva is an anxious young adult, with folk remedies – think onions, onions and more onions – constantly on her mind. Her relationship with her niece is a beautiful thing, almost heart-breaking, and more than enough to make up for her nearly irritating nervousness. Stephen… Oh, Stephen. There is little that I can truly put into words here, but the romance, although not a truly emphasised part of the story, is wonderfully emotional and real. These are characters that are given perfect care and attention – characters that I will remember and cherish for several years.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds is more of an experience than it is a book. It’s haunting, emotional and wonderfully written, but it’s also educational and thought-provoking. Some striking photographs from this historical period feature throughout, adding an extra special touch to this remarkable debut novel.