REVIEW: Michael Langan’s ambitious debut and Doug Johnstone’s new trilogy

Michael Langan's admirably ambitious debut 'Shadow Is A Colour (As Light Is)' and the first part of Doug Johnstone's new trilogy, 'A Dark Matter', impress Kerry Hudson

Shadow is a Colour (as Light is) is an admirably ambitious debut by Michael Langan. It’s comprised of interconnected stories that span the globe, from Hong Kong to Liverpool to New York to Paris, and timelines, shuttling back and forth through 1869 to 2013. With these multiple narratives Langan has created a book that explores father-and-son relationships, desire, loss, creativity and whether art can truly impact on our lives.

Our characters on this journey include a Hong Kong billionaire and his estranged, reclusive son, a closeted gay Hollywood star and his Liverpudlian director partner and a deeply troubled contemporary artist and Paul Cézanne. It is the paintings of the latter that, in one form or another, stitch these characters’ multiple narratives so skillfully together.

Indeed, the chapters featuring Cézanne, first in Paris and then in Aix-en-Provence, are some of the most persuasive, to the extent I wondered if there might be another novel to come featuring only the brilliant and misunderstood Cézanne.

His grasp of sensory detail is so strong that, as a reader you are fully immersed, whether it’s in art, food, sex, Hong Kong, New York or Liverpool

In other hands these weighty themes, along with a complex structure and the clearly rigorous research Langan has undertaken, might have felt overworked or overwrought, but this is a story with more light than shadow, ensuring an extremely compelling, enjoyable read.

Langan has a particular skill for capturing the unique voices of his many characters with a natural wry humour. His grasp of sensory detail is so strong that, as a reader you are fully immersed, whether it’s art, food, sex, Hong Kong, New York or Liverpool.

Running through this is a clear passion for art and an insightful understanding of the human heart, and what it desires. ‘Shadow is a Colour (as Light is)’ is a truly beautiful read and, as with the best of books, I felt grateful to have spent time in its richly realised world.

Another first, this time from established crime writer and fellow Big Issue book critic Doug Johnstone, is ‘A Dark Matter’, the first volume in a trilogy featuring three generations of Skelf women.

‘A Dark Matter’ begins on the day Dorothy cremates the family patriarch – her husband, Jenny’s father and Hannah’s grandfather. As a consequence they become, whether they like it or not, heirs to the family business – a funeral undertakers with a sideline in private detective work.

Johnstone worked as writer in-residence at funeral homes, and this knowledge is often gruesomely apparent on the page

It’s a brave choice to write from the perspective of not just one woman but three at very different times in their life, but Johnstone does this in alternate chapters with sensitivity and a deft hand. In the Skelfs he’s created strong, believable characters and no more so than when they’re taking certain men to task for their casual sexism or predatory behaviours.

Johnstone worked as writer in-residence at funeral homes, and this knowledge is often gruesomely apparent on the page. Gruesome or not, for Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah the business of undertaking must go on, even in grief, and besides that each of the Skelf women has a mystery to solve: Dorothy must try to find out if her spouse was the man she believed he was, Jenny is put on the trail of an adulterous husband and Hannah is searching for her missing friend.

It’s a tense ride, but what is most enjoyable is seeing the complexities of the relationships between the three generations of women unfold as they help and impede one another and deal with their grief in their own particular ways.

Shadow is a Colour (as Light is) by Michael Langan now is available digitally via Kindle (£2.99) / A Dark Matter by Doug Johnstone (Kindle edition out November 23, £4.99, paperback out on January 23, Orenda, £8.99)

Illustration: Rachel Presky