The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin

Reviewed by Harriet

How Ivor would have loved being dead! It was a shame he was missing it all.

First published in 1975, this very welcome reprint shows Celia Fremlin at her best. A psychological thriller with a hint of the supernatural (or is it?), it’s a real page-turner with the usual brilliantly-drawn secondary characters and more than a touch of Fremlin’s wry wit. The strap-line on the cover proclaims it to be A Christmas Story with a Difference, and though the action is spread over several winter months this is not altogether misleading, as Christmas definitely proves to be a focus for some of the frightening events that take place before the mystery is finally solved.

The story starts with a party. Imogen has been persuaded to go, and it will be her first outing since her husband died two months earlier, in a car accident. ‘After all’ says her friend, ‘Ivor wouldn’t have wanted you to go on grieving for ever’.

Like hell he wouldn’t! To Ivor’s vast, irrepressible ego, for ever would be all too short a tribute. He’d love to have imagined that Imogen would grieve for him for ever – indeed that everyone else would too: pupils, colleagues, neighbours; even his former wives and mistresses. All of then tearing their hair, rending their garments, flinging themselves on his pyre in an abandonment of grief.

The party is agony, not so much of grief as of embarrassment, as nobody knows what to say to a recently bereaved widow. Eventually Imogen slips away, consoled by the memory that Ivor hated leaving parties early, something she no longer has to worry about. She gets home to a mercifully empty house; all the relatives and well-wishers having finally departed, or so she hopes. She sits in Ivor’s now deserted study, surrounded by unanswered condolence letters, and, weeping, utters her only ever prayer: ‘Please God, don’t let me ever forget what a bastard he could be’.

Imogen is not alone for long. Her friends and extended family seem to think it their duty to come and stay, and soon she is surrounded by people she doesn’t like very much – her feckless grown-up stepson Robin, recently sacked from his umpteenth job, plus his sister Dot and her husband Herbert, who quarrel all the time, and their two small children. They’ve been joined by Ivor’s previous (second) wife Cynthia, who has flown over from her home in Barbados and shows no sign of ever wanting to return. Then there’s a mystery lodger, a girl who refuses to join in family meals but instead cooks herself unrecognisable vegetarian food in the kitchen.

But all this, though extremely trying, is not the worst of it. Imogen has started to get phone calls from a young man she met briefly at a party, saying he knows she killed Ivor – indeed, this suspicion actually makes it into the newspapers. And if that wasn’t enough, strange events start taking place in the house which suggest that either Ivor isn’t really dead at all, or that his ghost has somehow managed to return to haunt the house, something which, knowing Ivor, seems to Imogen not all that unlikely, though she tries not to believe it.

Celia Fremlin’s genius – I don’t think that’s too strong a word – is in getting inside the minds of troubled women, and The Long Shadow is a perfect illustration of this. Imogen is at her wits’ end, struggling with all the lodgers, and unable to come to any logical explanations for all the apparently supernatural events that are terrifying everyone in the house. Luckily she has a certain amount of mordant wit which sees her through some of the most difficult situations and helps her to deal with impossible people –if the guests are not bad enough, she’s constantly having to confront her next-door neighbour Edith, whose Darling Desmond passed away many years ago: ‘You might think, perhaps, that by now I’d have begun to get over it…to forget. But believe me, dear, it isn’t so’. The children, aged seven and eight, are brilliant creations, constantly squabbling, full of fears and anxieties – they’re Imogen’s step-grandchildren and she feels she should love them more than she does, though she does her best to entertain them, sometimes with disastrous results. And of course there’s Ivor, who, though dead, manages to be a vivid character in his own right, adored by his previous wives and mistresses, not to mention his colleagues and students.

As you can tell I read this book with immense pleasure, juggling between laughter at so much that is entertaining and apprehension about so much that is apparently inexplicable without accepting some kind of supernatural visitation. Fremlin knew a bit about widowhood, as her first husband had committed suicide ten years before she wrote this novel. It says much for her creativity that she’s able to elicit a mixture of sympathy and amusement for Imogen’s plight. There’s an afterword on Fremlin’s life at the back of the book, and you can also read Victoria’s BookBuzz essay about her here. All in all, if you enjoy a good psychological thriller laced with often hilarious wit, this is certainly the book for you.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Celia Fremlin, The Long Shadow (Faber & Faber, 2108). 978-0571348107, 250pp., paperback original.
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One thought on “The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin

  1. The only Fremlin I’ve read is The Hours Before Dawn, which I thought was marvellous. This is a much later book, but obviously she maintained a high quality through her writing life. One for the wishlist!

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