By Daniel José Older
This is the third book from the bitchesgottaeat bookclub, where Samantha Irby recommends a book that she’ll be reading, with the idea that we could read it at the same time but never actually discuss it at all. I’d already read and loved the first, Carry On, and was surprised and delighted by the second, Everything, Everything. Even after a 2-for-2 record, I didn’t really want to read her third recommendation, Shadowshaper. There’s just not much that I can relate to with magically talented teen artists living in Brooklyn, quite frankly.
The protagonist, Sierra, is a high-school senior focused on painting a large mural on the side of an abandoned building in her neighborhood. She notices other murals in the neighborhood fading unnaturally quickly, and then things get stranger from there. The writing seemed a bit uneven to me, which kept me from getting fully involved in the story, but the story itself is really unique and interesting.
A strong theme in Shadowshaper is immigrant culture, and the elements of one’s old country that one brings to one’s new country, in music, dance, food, and spirituality. Sierra’s family and most of her neighborhood is Puerto Rican, most of her friends are either Hispanic or African American, and her love interest is Haitian. There is a subtler theme, too, of misappropriation of cultures that aren’t one’s own. The book additionally asks questions about what kind of role academic study can play in understanding if it is necessarily on the outside, looking in. My favorite element of the story is how these themes are carried through in the supernatural elements, as well, but I can’t really elaborate without extensive spoilers.
Author Daniel José Older writes extremely visually, describing all the colors of the murals and the neighborhoods and the spirits themselves. As a reader, I get a bit bogged down in large descriptive paragraphs, but I kept thinking what a phenomenal movie this would make with animated murals traveling through the New York cityscape!