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Hardcore Neil Jordan fans will know that he originally started out as a writer, and indeed he writes in such a visual manner you can see why he made the Hollywood detour.

Since 1979 he has published four books - compared to writing and directing 13 pictures in the last 23 years, with his screen adaptation of Patrick McCabe's 'Breakfast at Pluto' due out early next year.

His latest literary effort 'Shade' is a gothic, dreamy tale, partly narrated from beyond the grave. It starts with middle-aged actress Nina Hardy describing how her childhood friend George murdered her with a gardening shears and the chain of events leading to this brutal demise.

As Nina tells her tale an evocative upbringing along the River Boyne is artfully conjured up. This is where Jordan's mother is from and where he used to holiday as a child, with his bond with the area obvious from his loving descriptions.

The young Nina is a solitary figure, with a mother caught up in her own loneliness. When her half brother Gregory turns up and she befriends her less well-off neighbours, George and Janie, Nina no longer needs to rely on the imaginary friends she had created.

Set between the 1900's and the 1950's, tragedy and heartbreak haunt the novel as the tale describes the four growing up and not wanting to grow up. It follows Nina to the stage in London, chased by her mother's disapproval, and George and Gregory to war in the Dardanelles.

'Shade' explores the loss of innocence that comes with growing up, the human capacity for dealing with loneliness and the problems of misplaced love.

There is an ambiguous and not entirely innocent web of inappropriate emotions spun: Janie loves Gregory, George loves Nina, and Gregory and Nina have an unwholesome fondness for each other.

Jordan's unusual idea is that Nina's ghost not only watches over the living but also travels backwards in time to haunt her own childhood. She was aware of a presence looking over her in childhood, similar to having a guardian angel, which she realises was herself when she is murdered.

The book is beautifully written and is full of memorable images and interesting Irish mythology. However, at times the always-ornate prose is tricky to follow as the story flashes between childhood and 40 years later and as the narration switches from Nina to second and third person.

The book is filled with sad nostalgia with the reader left with no doubt that life, any life, is better than death – "death envies life. It longs, weeps, pines, and retches for that condition".

As Nina looks down on her half brother Gregory, who mourns her loss, she wants to whisper to him "treasure the ache, the pain that seems as if it will never end because the joke that you don't see coming is that it will end".

Jordan was the worthy winner of the recent Kerry Group Irish fiction award for 'Shade'. Overall, it is a captivating page-turner with convincing characters and a superb twist at the end, though you do have to concentrate to get the most out of it.
 
That Jordan has been more prolific as a film-maker than as a writer so far is definitely literature's loss.

Mary McCarthy