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Monday, December 18

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"This wasn't grief Davis felt, staring at her so-still feet pointing at impossible angles to the tight synthetic weave of charcoal carpet. Grief is born. Grief matures. Grief passes. Despair, on the other hand, which arrives in an instant, ferments into depression." So opens Kevin Guilfoile's Cast of Shadows as Dr. Davis Moore stands above the body of Anna Kat, his beaten, raped and murdered daughter. His shock and desperation are palpable as his eyes travel down the body and he notes that in the morning he will awake only to remember that his child is dead. In these first pages that set up the protagonist's motivation, there are no tricks to ensnare the reader's interest; there is only good writing that makes the story instantly and effortlessly gripping. From the first paragraph, I knew that this was going to be good.

In a time when cloning has become a marginally acceptable practice for couples who are either unable to conceive or who, for genetic reasons, do not wish to reproduce, Davis Moore is one of Chicago's leading doctors specializing in the recreation of human life. When Anna Kat is murdered, a police mix-up with the evidence leaves Davis with a vial of semen, a lock of hair, and the moral dilemma of his life -- how far would he go to look into the eyes of his daughter's killer? "I hate the thought that there was no reason for it," Davis laments. "No motive. That [Anna Kat] died just because some ex-con passing through town needed to scratch an itch. I wouldn't even need to know his name if I could just see into his eyes and try to understand why he did it. Why it had to happen." Davis, of course, fails against his temptations and the result is Justin Finn, an intelligent, precocious and physically able boy whom Davis follows through the course of his life.

The Chicago-based thriller is a departure from the author's previous works -- contributing to McSweeney's and The Morning News and penning a political satire -- but it's with a firm understanding of the elements of a good story that Guilfoile spills out the horrific events of Davis's life. With his name now established among the Chicago literati, he settles his characters into their cityscape with ease. It's enough for a Chicagoan to believe that the author knows Andersonville and the Art Institute and the University of Chicago, but not so much that a foreigner wouldn't feel comfortable in this world. And creating believable alternate worlds is something Guilfoile does with skill -- much of the noire-ish action takes place inside "Shadow World," a Sims-like computer game that offers the chance to track the real life killer through the actions of the game's "True-to-Life" players.

Cast of Shadows' vitality lies in that balance of making the reader at home in any world, keeping it from being too much of any one thing. It's not strictly a mystery, nor is it a sci-fi tale. It's not a philosophical meditation, nor is it a parable against the dangers of taking creation into one's own hands. It's about righting wrongs and vengeful desire. It's about the domino effect of death and how the loss of one life can affect so many others. "At heart, what the book is about is how most, if not all, of our decisions are made with imperfect information," Guilfoile said in an interview with Time Out Chicago. "And each of the characters make these decisions, mostly bad ones, based on what they think is true. There isn't much redemption in the end." Although the novel is very plot-driven, with events occurring to steer the story in a certain direction, this can be forgiven as the premise of the story is set upon specific things happening. That Davis even gets his hands on the killer's DNA may come off as a bit contrived, but we already know that the killer will be cloned. What we don't know is everything that happens after that. Guilfoile reveals just enough so that his readers aren't kept in the dark, but he doesn't spell everything out so clearly that he insults their intelligence. That he is able to navigate this fine line so deftly is what makes Cast of Shadows such an engaging and intriguing read.

However, it's Guilfoile's characters that anchor the story, making his future and simulated worlds as believable as our own. The inhabitants of Cast of Shadows are as fully fleshed out as the online avatars of "Shadow World." Davis isn't your stereotypical wronged man, out to seek vengeance for his daughter. He's a man who's lost everything, his marriage included, as he and his wife fall deeper into depression, and he'll go to extraordinary lengths to find purpose in this destruction. Justin is fittingly creepy, as only time will reveal whether he will succumb to his murderous nature. "We're all capable of horrible things," Davis tells Justin. "Every one of us. If there's anything you've proved in the first fifteen years of your life it's that a man is more than just the sum of his chromosomes." With a private eye/Tribune reporter hot on the case of the city's most recently notorious serial killer, named the "Wicker Man" for the neighborhood in which his killings occur, the book leaves no character undeveloped and no chance that we won't care about what happens to them through the years.

In the end, I felt spent. I wanted to cry for everything that had happened in those pages. I mourned for Davis's loss, for the struggle he endured to put some meaning to it, and for the havoc he wrought upon those in the process. The lies he concocted and told to his wife, his colleagues and himself -- was it worth it? Was his search ultimately fruitless or did it serve the purpose for which he intended? The answers to those questions are something each reader will have to decide upon turning the last few pages. The only thing I can say is that my first impression proved to be right: This was good.

Cast of Shadows is available on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere. More information is at castofshadows.net.

 

About the Author(s)

Veronica Bond is a writer living in Chicago. She is a GB staffer and contributor to Bookslut.

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