Reviewed by Meredith Whitford
Walking in the Shadow
by Carmen Radtke
Paperback, June 2020, ISBN-13: 978-0648835400, 286 pgs
First, I have to declare an interest. I became friends with Carmen online when I read her charming mystery A Matter of Love and Death, set in Adelaide in the 1930s. South Australia has such a large German community that I grew up surrounded by Radtkes, Bradtkes, Henschkes, Nitschkes, Dohnts, and so on — and her book was so well researched I assumed she lived here. When I made contact with her I found she is of German extraction but has lived in New Zealand and now in the UK. She’s just a very good researcher as well as a good writer.
So, as fellow writers, and with the Adelaide link, we became friends. Eventually she sent me the MS of Walking in the Shadow. This is one of those outstandingly good books that should be published and which nearly wins prizes but is always knocked back for being too sombre, insular, sad, New Zealandish, well-written, etc etc etc. (As a historical novelist myself I’ve been through that mill: too Australian; not Australian enough…) Anyway, finally Carmen and I decided to publish Walking in the Shadow under the banner of Between the Pages Publishing.
But I would have had nothing to do with publishing it if it weren’t such an excellent book. It doesn’t sound a light or entertaining read — it’s set on Quail Island, the last NZ leper colony, in 1909. Jimmy, the “miracle man”, a cured leper, finds life in the outside world too hard and returns to the Island to care for his friends, the last two men isolated there: patient, kind old Will and troubled young Charley. Their only visitors are the loyal and dogged doctor, the Matron of the Lyttelton hospital, and sometimes a choir. Music is one of the men’s consolations; music, books, and their beloved pet bird Jewel. And, for Jimmy, there is his friendship with Kathleen, the caretaker’s wife. Jimmy has to do some growing up, to find enough confidence to tackle the outside world again, even at the cost of leaving his friends on the Island.
It is the clever detailing of life on the Island, and of leprosy, that makes this book so very engaging. Three men alone, with only occasional visits, making their own entertainment, caring for one another, knowing that two of them will never escape the Island unless it’s to go to another leper colony… Yet Carmen makes these men and their lives fascinating. There is real love here; gentle, unselfish, sometimes hard-tried love.
And these people really existed. Carmen changed the names, but all the characters are as real as Quail Island (also used for training dogs and horses for Antarctic exploration) is and was.
If you want sentimentality, or sex, or the usual love story, or the feisty heroine of so many “historicals”, read something else. If you want a well-written, well-researched, tender and beautiful book on an unusual subject, Walking in the Shadow is for you.
The book has been endorsed by the Pacific Leprosy Organisation — who ask us to use the term “leprosy sufferer” rather than “leper”; but for the sake of brevity in a review I have lapsed into the older, less sensitive usage.
Walking in the Shadow is available now from Amazon as an ebook, and the paperback has just been released — released into another time of illness and isolation.
About the reviewer: Educated entirely after leaving school, Meredith Whitford has been a civil servant, a freelance editor and director of Between Us Manuscript Assessment Service. She now has a BA in history and classics, and a Master’s in Creative Writing, and is the award-winning author of Treason, Shakespeare’s Will, and Jessica Mitford: Churchill’s Rebel (biography). Her interests are reading, history, sleeping and cryptic crosswords. She lives near the sea in Adelaide, South Australia, and is married with two children, two grandchildren, and two cats.