Shadow of the Firefly by M. S. Khokhar. Book review

SHADOW OF THE FIREFLY by M S Khokhar. Matador Books, £9.99 (UK), 367 pp

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan.

This is a book that I have to be ambivalent about, partly because it doesn’t give enough clues as to what the reader is expected to interpret it as. Although it is labelled a memoir (in small print on the back), it doesn’t read like that. While I applaud anyone who can turn a bad experience into positive force, coming to this without any prior knowledge is not helpful. Khokhar was unlucky enough to suffer a stroke while still in his teens and apparently, this book is an exploration of his coming to terms with his new situation. I say apparently, as this book is in serious need of an introduction and something about the author which would provide an insight into the contents.

The book starts conventionally enough, with a pair of young friends heading out for an evening of star-gazing. The rest is surreal.

The narrator awakes alone in a place he doesn’t recognise with his left arm and leg not functioning properly and he has an incapacitating headache. Yes, these are symptoms of a stroke. Yes, he is disorientated. He only has a vague recollection of the person he meets in the wood he finds himself in. Most of the narrative from here consists of the protagonist falling asleep or losing consciousness and waking up in a different landscape in which he meets a different person or couple each time, many urging him to go back to Erutan. The landscapes are usually either woods, beaches or caves which do not appear interconnected. Many of them fall apart around him. Occasionally, animals such as cows, deer and a bear turn up.

The book is subtitled a ‘Discovery of Journey’ yet not much of either really happens. The problem is that there is likely to be a lot of symbolism in the events, none of which is explained or made clear. It is possible to interpret half-recalled strangers as staff caring for him, or friends and family visiting except he never encounters any twice. The fracturing landscape could represent the damaged mind though there is no discernible pattern to it.

There are two issues that make this a difficult book to understand. First, the changing landscape and meetings with new people go on far too long and there is a severe danger of tedium setting in, especially as there does not seem to be any progress. Secondly, if this is a voyage from the depths of unconsciousness back towards normal life there needs to be some kind of development towards normality. If these two things had been resolved this could have provided an insight into the mind. Having said that, the writing style is cogent and literary.  Stroke victims often have speech impairments as well as physical ones and throughout, the thought processes and descriptions are very lucid, the only impairment appearing to be memory. With a few changes, this could have been fascinating.

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