Neil M Gunn, one of Scotland's most distinguished 20th century novelists, wrote over a period of 30 years, starting in the late 1920's with The Grey Coast and ending in 1956 with The Atom of Delight, a work that can be described as a spiritual autobiography. His period of creative writing spanned the Recession, the political crises of the 1930's and the Second World War and its aftermath. The word 'spiritual' is of immense importance when describing Gunn's work as his novels invariably depict two worlds the world of here and now and that in which the meaning of life and the essence of living are explored. Most of Gunn's novels are set and enacted in the Highlands of Scotland and the backdrop for The Shadow, published in 1948, is even more specific in terms of location there. The setting is undoubtedly based on that part of the Highlands where Gunn spent his most creative and productive years (1938 - 1949) in the hill country near the county town of Dingwall in Ross and Cromarty. Resemblances do not end with place; one of the most important characters in the novel, Aunt Phemie, is unmistakably a portrait of Gunn's wife, Daisy.
The Shadow has another significance; it is one of two novels, the other being an earlier book, The Serpent, in which some of Gunn's innermost feelings are indirectly revealed. During the years immediately prior to the publication of the book he was concerned and depressed by much of the literature of the time, which, in his view, concentrated too often on negative attitudes and violence, and a destructive analysis of the human spirit; it created an atmosphere of confusion and doubt. A challenge was there for Gunn to accept, and he met it in this enchanting novel through its female characters.
The Shadow is not what could be described as a 'war' book although it deals in depth with the causes and effects of war. The years preceding the war had seen the emergence of two totalitarian regimes, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany; the latter perished with the Second World War, but the latter remained a protagonist in what was to be called 'the Cold War,' and the idea of Marxism as a system still had its attraction in some circles for those who thought that it offered an opportunity to build a better world. The idea presented in a plausibly rational way by its adherents is a vital ingredient to the thought processes explored in this novel. The Shadow reflects Gunn's fascination with antitheses, be they darkness and light, reason and emotion or destruction and creation. One of the two principal characters, Nan, a young Highland woman who had experienced the Blitz in London and been a member of an intellectual Marxist clique there, returns to her native country and her favourite aunt, Aunt Phemie, a widow and farmer, to recover from a nervous breakdown. The causes of her mental illness are progressively revealed in her erratic return to health. The names given to the three parts of the novel are related to Nan's condition. The first part, 'Convalescence,' takes the form of a monologue in the form of letters written by Nan, but not necessarily sent, to her lover, Ranald, in London, a member of the clique she had deserted. The letters are both a paean to the wonders of nature and its healing effects and a searching analysis of herself including allusions to the hallucinations she is experiencing. The prose is complex, a mix of the sophisticated with literary allusions and the simple, expressed in a seemingly innocent way. The writing is clearly a form of release, a way of explaining her views and values without fear of contradiction, the inevitable contradiction that had blighted her thoughts and inner feelings in conversations in the clique. The letters are clearly affected by the unpleasant recollections of living in an amoral circle of people divorced from the traditional norms of social behaviour and obsessed by attaining through a rational approach the aim of building a new world order regardless of the suffering and cruelty that that process would necessitate; they are stimulated by the need to have a loved recipient always in mind to give shape to her thoughts for her own benefit, and for his. Her opening lines are joyous and full of thoughts of Ranald. 'I have discovered the world! Today, this very day in the hours that are past - just past, for I still hear them blowing in the wind, the softest loveliest wind with clouds coming up over the sky, and even as I write this, in the tail of my eye, just outside the small gable window, a long new branch of the climber - a white rose - not tied up, blows up and down. Oh, I wish I could tell you about it.' But there were dark clouds on the horizon, and Nan's movement towards recovery was interrupted by the news of the brutal murder of a local crofter; a shadow was cast over the landscape that had seemed to be a rural paradise. Nan was affected not only by the deed itself but also because the suspected murderer was a man suffering from a mental disorder caused by his military experiences in the First World War. Her condition was not helped by chance encounters with a local artist, Adam, whose ideas about nature differed so much from her own. There was a ruthless streak in him that revelled in the cruelties of animal life and placed man outside nature as a dominant force. Only Aunt Phemie as a beloved aunt, an educated woman of experience and a trusted confidante could provide the haven of peace she sought, but even her efforts could not prevent a serious relapse on the part of Nan.
The second part of the book, 'The Relapse', sees the appearance of Ranald, who has been asked by Aunt Phemie to visit Nan. The story is now in the third person and the focus moved from Nan to Ranald and Aunt Phemie. The dialogue between them takes up from where Nan ends her epistolary monologue and presents itself as a fencing match between the optimistic, sensitive and emotional outlook of the woman and the bleak materialism and harsh logic of the man. Ranald cannot but admire his interlocutor, who is not only a well educated woman but also one who runs a farming business effectively and pleasantly. His blueprint for a more effectively organised world stands up weakly against her proven success in getting the best out of her farm and those who work on it. His ideas are rational, ruthless, and shown by history to lead to tyranny and unhappiness; hers are full of the warmth of a human and natural approach to life and have shown themselves to be successful in the small world of her farm. Although Aunt Phemie occasionally glimpses touches of humanity within the confident, self assured and almost arrogant attitudes of Ranald, she finds him cold and remote and more of a personification of certain political ideas than someone fully responsive to the views and needs of his ill and distressed girl friend. A suppressed dislike is there. Ranald's departure after the beginning of Nan's recovery fills her with a sense of relief and the faint hope that Nan will perhaps abandon her intended return to London.
The final part of the book, 'The Recovery,' brings the two women closely together again, and their relaxed and easy relationship is resumed. Aunt Phemie has still some investigative work to do regarding a serious fight between Ranald and the artist, Adam, which has been kept a secret by both men. In the process she gets to know Adam better and tries to understand his strange views on nature, in particular that of man's place relative to it. The idea of man's domination of an environment from which he is separated is at the heart of this thinking and dampens his ability to appreciate the subtleties of nature. When they are both looking with admiration at a beautiful view of a ravine and waterfall, she remarks, 'You can be part of this and still be yourself, only more full of intimacy, of love of it. You don't want to dominate it. That's the very mood that does not arise.' He is responsive to this, and there is a feeling that this is his first step back to spiritual health. Even earlier he pays her a compliment in the words, 'You have a gift of discreet silence.' Aunt Phemie certainly has that gift and many other attributes natural to the female psyche. He kindness, her courage and common sense - all loosely bound within the orbit of emotion - make her the anchor person in the novel. Her virtues are the antitheses of those of Ranald and Adam, who are victims of their own logic and theories. There is no doubt that Gunn had his wife, Daisy, in mind when Nan describes Aunt Phemie in her letter to Ranald, 'She is comfortably slim and though well over forty the gold in her hair hasnt faded. I suppose gold doesn't. She is a tirelessly energetic worker and can stand quite still.' It is little wonder that Gunn's inscription on his wifes copy of The Shadow should be, 'For one who chases the shadows away.'
This book, beautiful in its own right, leaves the reader with question of whether the shadows have been truly swept away. It was written at a time when Marxism, or at least a debased form of that system, was seen as the great threat to the concept of democracy and the freedom and welfare of humanity. Today, it is terrorism, but not terrorism alone; in addition, in this era of 'post-modernism' there are distinct symptoms of a malaise at the heart of Western civilisation that takes many forms. The acquisitive nature of a society based on consumerism and individualism, the absence of a spiritual dimension in domestic affairs and the emphasis on rights without a concomitant emphasis on duty are but three of these. Allied to all this, there is a justifiable fear that the process of globalisation will denude the world of the immense contribution made by small communities to the happiness and spiritual health of mankind. The Shadow in this world of shadows maintains the strange relevance it had over fifty years ago and perhaps offers the reader a glimpse of hope.