The Shadow Doctor (by Adrian Plass)

Adrian Plass is my favourite contemporary British Christian writer. I’ve loved his work ever since reading ‘The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass aged 37 ¾’ back in the 1980s, and have acquired all his books over the years, usually within a year or so of publication. He uses a lot of humour, but also writes in a poignant, honest and often very thought-provoking way.

When I saw that he had a new book out last year, ‘The Shadow Doctor’, I realised from the cover and blurb that it was one of Plass’s more serious offerings. I waited until it was out in paperback, then put it on my wishlist and was delighted to be given it for my recent birthday.

There’s a brief prologue to the book, involving someone in quite a distressed state, full of fear… I felt quite tense after reading it, so was relieved that the first chapter, following immediately afterwards, is rather more prosaic. We don’t learn what the prologue was about, or even who is involved in the scene, until much later.

Jack is the main character of the book and we see events unfolding through his eyes. We meet him first wandering round a cathedral, and learn that his father inspired him to love the warmth and antiquity of British cathedrals. Jack is miserable about something, and in lighting a candle he’s evidently doing something contrary to his usual practice.

A lengthy letter from his grandmother follows, letting Jack know some things about her which she had never told him. She also invites him to get in touch with someone whose card she encloses in the letter… and, eventually, this leads to Jack getting to know an older man calling himself The Shadow Doctor.

There’s a lot of dialogue in the book, some of it perhaps a tad lengthy or forced. But Adrian Plass always tells a good story and I found myself growing quite fond of Jack. He’s a bit confused about life in general, but likes to listen to friends’ problems and help them out, as far as he can. The Shadow Doctor leads him down paths he had never considered, inviting him to think about difficult questions, and not to hide behind platitudes or half-truths.

It’s not a fast-action book, it’s not particularly great on characterisation (the Shadow Doctor remains a tad shadowy throughout, and other characters only have brief roles). There’s no humour as such, although there are a few light-hearted moments to contrast with some very serious and important conversations. I wasn’t sure what to think at first; it took me a few chapters to get into the story.

But by the time I was half-way through, I could barely put it down. I wanted to know what was going on, and to find some answers to Jack’s questions. In that sense, the conclusion was not entirely satisfactory. Some questions are answered, but several threads are left wide open. I don’t know if this is because there’s going to be a sequel, or if it’s meant to reflect the way that life leaves many questions unanswered.

There’s a lot in the book that’s cynical about how modern Christians appear, and the pat answers that are all too easy to give. There are discussions - about whether or not God exists, for instance - that might make some believers shudder and cry ‘heresy’.

There is a strong nod to Narnia, and many oblique references to the Bible, in particular the life of Jesus. It’s primarily a book for those who have a Christian background of some kind, but could be read by anyone interested in problem-solving and bridge-building.

The overall theme is of compassion, of standing up for what’s right, and true, of following the Master. And of standing with Puddleglum.

I really can’t do it justice in a review. I shall probably keep thinking about parts of this book for weeks to come. Definitely recommended if you like this author, or if you're interested in some thoughtful, encouraging Christian fiction.

PS when I checked the link (above) for Adrian Plass's website, I was delighted to read that he's working on a sequel to this book.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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