By Jared Gardner
As a professional reader and a full-time skeptic, it is rare that books move me deeply, and rarer still that they move me to tears. Reading too much and too often (and too much that is cynical, poorly crafted, or contemptible) I sometimes feel like the heartless giant the father becomes in Three Shadows. But like the father, this story has melted me and moved me to tears and, dare I say it, to tears of gratitude. I feel prepared as a result of this book to be not only a better reader, more open to the possibilities of every text I read, but a better father. (I can’t believe I just wrote that— there goes all my street cred.)
Three Shadows is an allegorical tale of the impossible loss of a young child and the price his parents might pay to try and keep him. There is no more painful subject, and for the most part—and in most hands—it is nothing but a desperate attempt to pull a person’s heartstrings so hard that you shake free their wallet. In fact, as an unbearably doting parent myself, I make it a rule to avoid any film and most books where children die. (And that last sentence should dispense with whatever might be left of my street cred after my first paragraph). But Pedrosa handles the story—inspired by his own experiences watching his friends’ son die—with a gentle, loving touch that is as respectful of the readers’ heartstrings as it is of the very real loss of his friends, which radiates movingly from the core of this book. And the remarkable energy and vitality of his lines, honed from years working in mainstream animation, makes even the tragedy that is inevitable speak more to the power of life than the finality of death.
In truth, the earlier work by Pedrosa I had seen (none of it yet translated from the original French) radiated the influence of Disney in ways that felt more derivative than alive. But here, the quality of the drawing is both breathlessly effortless and brilliantly spot-on at every turn. Pedrosa moves impercibly from a delicate fine-line style, to a shadowy charcoal, to flat and heavy black-and-white compositions, and always in the service of the story, as it shifts gently across different registers of fable, myth, personal memoir, and tribute. And the tribute here is not only to the loss at the core of his story, but also to the life of French comics: one sees the gentle homages throughout to Dupuy & Berberian, Trondheim, David B., and others.
I write all this knowing that the book will not move all equally. Some very smart readers, Charles Hatfield and Craig Fisher, at their review-blog Thought Balloonists, both found the book somewhat cold at its heart, a critique that of course baffled me given the gelatinous mess this book left me. And Tom Spurgeon (another smart guy) expressed another fairly popular sentiment: that the book’s subplots and digressions ultimately suggest a somewhat haphazardly edited book more about “love” than about narrative unity. As I read their reviews, I could see the logic of their responses, and this only made me more intrigued by the seeming illogic of my own. But I have no regrets and make no apologies: this beautiful book worked for me beyond reason, which of course must serve as a call to seek out those reasons as best I can.
In order to get a clearer sense as to why this story worked so well for me, I compared it to other books in my library that featured similar stories that left me cold. There were many, and rereading them did little to warm up my normally stony heart. But they did help me see some of what worked so well for me in Three Shadows. For one thing, Three Shadows is about so much more than the death of a child, and it is here that the subplots and digressions do their magic work, I believe. While the central story involves the Shadows’ arrival for the son and the very different responses of the mother and the father to this horrible realization, from early on in the book a series of seemingly minor character intrude on the private grief of the family. First, an old woman, a spiritual advisor to the town, heads off for her own much-delayed encounter with the Shadows, even as the father begins his desperate attempt to steal his son away to freedom on the other side of the river. The significance of the scars she bears from her youthful encounter with those same Shadows and her decision now to embrace them only makes sense at the book’s end, when an old man who cheated the father of his heart in exchange for power to hold the Shadows at bay is forced to pay the price for his selfish choices.
Perhaps most baffling on first read, however, is the long subplot of the ferryboat ride across the seemingly endless river. Here father and son encounter an old couple who both extend and require sympathy; even in the midst of his desperation, the father is able to leave his son to reach out for others as he confronts the captain in search of care for the old man. In the captain’s quarters, he encounters a slave trader and his victim, a young woman being sold to serve at the pleasure of cruel and sadistic masters, and here the father’s willingness to risk all in the service of others comes up short. Staring into the slave’s eyes, he can only walk away despite his deep horror at the face of this inhuman trade. We know the father is a good man, a very good man, and yet even faced with an injustice that shakes him to his very foundations, he must put his son’s safety first.
Of course, he cannot ultimately protect his son, and part of what the book measures here is the cost of this devotion to the father’s soul, a cost represented ultimately by the heartless giant he becomes, so big and powerful and unfeeling that he cannot feel the pain he is bringing to the very child he so desperately wants to protect. But this book does not condemn the father’s choices here, but mourns with him, nods sadly to the shifting ethical lines that parenthood brings to one’s life, and the cost of that shifting for one’s sense of self and potential as a parent. In the end, father and son must trade places, the father saved by the son who restores to him his own heart and who bravely confronts the fate the father could not face. In the end, despite the grief, this is a book about the second chances that life, if embraced properly and fully, always make available. And that is why this is a book most worthy not only of one read, but of a second.