Sally Gardner's new novel The Double Shadow - one for older teenagers and adults this time - is an ingeniously complex story set before and during the Second World War. It concerns memories and identity, how the past makes the future, and with its elements of science fiction and influences as various as Eliot's The Waste Land and the film Sunset Boulevard, it is a dark book but a beautifully, richly imagined one.
In the middle of a bluebell wood stands an Art Deco picture palace, a cinema built by millionaire Arnold Ruben in the grounds of his opulent home, but it does more than show films for its owner and his glamorous guests, for within it its creator has designed and constructed a memory machine, a device meant to capture memories so that those who use it can always live in the best parts of their lives. Although the machine was intended as a scientific breakthrough into a personal lost Utopia whose use could change the world, at the heart of its purpose is Amaryllis, Ruben's 'difficult' seventeen-year-old daughter, whose childhood was interrupted by traumatic events and whose memories of those early years have vanished.
As Amaryllis is sucked into an alternative reality, a world of her edited past, so others too find themselves in a memory-loop or at the mercy of shady, malicious characters whose interest in how the machine works is far from purely academic. When the British government's Operation for Scientific Protection gets involved, it falls to young Ezra Pascoe, a bright boy who had tried to befriend Amaryllis, to go where time has stood still to rescue those he holds dear.
It's not an easy book to summarise, but it is plausible, moving and thrilling, and it's never predictable. Once again, Sally Gardner's brilliantly creative mind has drawn a world in which we can believe, the '30s and '40s setting well researched and vividly pictured, while the strange 'wasteland' into which her characters are drawn mixes pockets of the familiar and the comfortable with a bleak, almost post-apocalyptic hinterland to very unsettling effect. In addition, and particularly apposite as we approach Remembrance Day, one of the book's strands concerns a character's recollections of the First World War and how his experiences then have continued to affect him so many years on: he is trapped in a memory-loop, but it is a prison built of harsh reality rather than one fashioned by a man-made device.
Original and atmospheric, chilling and thoroughly engrossing, this is another terrific read from a versatile author who is extraordinarily imaginative and technically skilled in equal measure.