Word of mouth is already building for Sally Gardner's extraordinary new novel, a complex and richly imagined tale about memory and identity set against the backdrop of the Second World War. The Double Shadow (Indigo, November) achieved the rare feat of being picked by all three Children's Booksellers' Choice panellists last month (The Bookseller 19th/16th August).
In a world where books are routinely marketed as X meets Y, and summarised neatly in a sentence, The Double Shadow defies easy categorisation. At the centre of the novel, which opens in 1937, is Amaryllis Reuben, a wilful, rebellious 16-year-old who is expelled from boarding school after a string of misdemeanours.
Amaryllis is a deeply troubled young woman, who strangely has no memories of her life before the age of eight. Her wealthy father Arnold has created a memory machine, housed in a picture palace, which can capture memories, good and bad, and replay them forever—with this he hopes to keep Amaryllis safe from the looming war. But on her 17th birthday, something goes disastrously wrong and she finds herself trapped in the memory machine.
With influences as diverse as T S Eliot's "The Waste Land", the philosopher Socrates and the classic Hollywood film "Sunset Boulevard", this is Gardner's most strikingly original novel yet, and her first for an older YA readership. With some dark and haunting themes The Double Shadow is one for readers 14+, and marks a new direction for the author: "When I write for younger [readers], I snorkel. I don't have to take much breathing gear with me, I'm know what I'm up to and I'm on the surface. This is the deepest dive I've had to do."
Gardner has a reputation for originality. After starting her writing career with picture books, her first novel for children was I, Coriander. Set partly in 17th-century London and partly in a magical fairy world, it picked up rave reviews and beat Philip Pullman to the Nestle Children's Book Prize Gold Award in 2005. This was followed by the French Revolution-set The Red Necklace and its sequel The Silver Blade. Actor Dominic West ("The Wire") has bought film rights to both titles, and work on a script is under way.
Gardner's successful career must be particularly satisfying—she spent years believing she couldn't ever be a writer due to her dyslexia (she's in the 4% of the population classified as severely dyslexic). "It's rather drummed in at school—if you can't spell and have a very limited understanding of punctuation, the idea of you being a writer is a complete farce and a joke. But that's nothing to do with it. It's to do with imagination and voice."
Accordingly, she struggled horribly at school—"I couldn't read and I came from a family of lawyers, all of them very clever and very academic"—but loved stories, and would make them up herself based on the pictures in books: "In a way I've never lost that, I've never had any trouble thinking up storylines."
Eventually labelled "unteachable", she was sent to a school for maladjusted children where, aged 14, something clicked. She recalls picking up a copy of Wuthering Heights "and thinking, I don't care, I'm just going to look at these words. And suddenly I was in there. I had gone through the door. I don't know how it happened or why it happened [then]. I think the pressure was off me, no one bothered to teach me, they had given up."
Escaping school after O-Levels, Gardner studied Theatre at Central St Martins and worked as a set and costume designer in the West End and around the world. She credits those years behind the scenes, watching playwrights hone their craft, with helping to turn her into a writer: "I think it's fascinating, what begins to work and what doesn't work. One of the things I learnt was don't give all your punches away to begin with, keep something up your sleeve right until the end, when everyone thinks they're comfortable, they're all right, they've made the home stretch. Just save it."
Now, she finds her dyslexia a huge advantage ("It's incredibly undervalued; I just think it's a gift"), particularly in terms of the way she visualises a scene before writing. "I thought that everyone had a cinema in their head. I always think if I can't see [a scene], and I can't really go back there in my brain, then it isn't working."
The Double Shadow is one of the launch titles for Indigo, Orion's new YA imprint. Gardner herself is slightly wary of the label YA: "I don't know what the term ‘young adult' means. I think I write for open minds, minds that aren't closed to certain ideas; I think that's what I call a young adult."