The Shadow-Line, A Confession
by Joseph Conrad
Edition: Oxford World’s Classics, paperback
My overall rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Recommended.
A young merchant officer finds his career taking an unforeseen turn, when he is suddenly promoted to becoming captain of his first ship. What he doesn’t know is that its last captain died a deranged man; and the ship’s second-in-command, Mr Burns, is still haunted by the memory. And when the voyage starts to go very wrong, the new captain realises he must fight something different than physical hardships, if he is to lead the ship safely to port.
This is the third story by Conrad I’ve read, and maybe even the best. It is only about 130 pages long and very readable, but Conrad’s signature style–full of eerie atmosphere, eccentric characters, and intense narration–was strong from start to finish. At the same time, The Shadow-Line has a very youthful narrator with an entirely different “voice” than Marlowe (the narrator of several Conrad books). Another thing that impressed me was the perfect flow of narration, which covered a lot of time but didn’t feel rushed or abrupt. And he could depict each setting very clearly and poignantly, without wallowing in superfluous description. I don’t agree with everything he says, but Conrad’s writing style is pure genius, in my opinion.
This book feels like a portrait of one event in the narrator’s life. The title would confirm this–the “shadow-line” refers to the “line” which a person crosses as they go from youth to “grownup”. This is the overall focus of the book, but unlike similar books, I wonder if there might be something else underlying this story. There is certainly a strain of mystery–and even ghost story–in the whole thing, especially in the characters–what it is that Captain Giles leaves unsaid, what made the ship’s former violinist-captain go crazy (and no, it wasn’t the violin-playing, lol), what kind of person the ship’s steward really is, etc. This is the brilliant realism of The Shadow Line…some things we’ll never find out.
Another theme (foreshadowed again by the title) is the power of guilt. Without describing this subplot, I will say that it’s very well-written. I don’t get the impression that the narrator was self-pitying, and he didn’t run away from his responsibility.
I loved the bittersweet ending, too. Unlike Heart of Darkness, which ends in as much mystery as it began, the ending of Shadow-Line felt complete, and the themes of the story were pretty clearly defined. So not only being a short, page-turner read, I think The Shadow-Line was a very worthwhile one.