How does one describe a book that so vividly paints another time, another place? Maybe we should start where it all occurs, Paris in the last few years of the 19th century. The city is a hub of creativity – after all, we’re talking about Paris, right? Poets, painters, musicians, they all converge on the French capital, eager to create art and revel in life and sin. The city is brought to magnificent life by the author, testament to hours and hours of diligent research. However, Paris of La Belle Epoque is not a kind city, it is a city where the dark stands side by side with the light, evil jostling for space with good.
Central to the plot is the macabre if fascinating story of Joan of Arc and one of her most flamboyant captains, Gilles de Rais. This ancient story forms an essential background to the sinister events that unfold during two brief months in the decadent Paris of the late 19th century, and to further spice things up, we have Satanists and dabblers in the occult, we have an angry seething city, with anarchists and revolutionaries calling for death to the bourgeoisie.
Enter our protagonist, Theo. She is a young American woman who has come to Paris to paint. Through her French cousin, Averill, Theo has become a member of an avant-garde group that calls themselves Les Revenants. Young and driven by passion to change the world, Theo’s companions live right on the edge, drinking absinthe and attending some rather odd events, such as a concert in the catacombs of Paris, the living audience complemented by the thousands upon thousands of skulls that adorn the surrounding walls. (Very evocative, let me tell you.)
And then, the children start disappearing. Quite often children no one will miss – or with parents too poor to demand the attention of the police. One of these children is a boy Theo knows. Another of these children is the protégé of one of Paris’ foremost mobsters, and he does have the clout to get the police moving, which is when Michel Devaux enters the scene. Yet another child Theo knows disappears. And another. One of these children – a blind little girl – is discovered gruesomely murdered, and the only link Inspector Devaux finds is that all the children, in one way or the other, have had contact with one or more of Les Revenants.
Floats the Dark Shadow is told mainly from the POV of Theo and Michel. One is a young woman besotted with her cousin, who now and then worries her absinthe-addicted cousin may be the culprit, the other is a determined officer of the law, a man combating demons of his own. As the book progresses, Theo and Michel grow into complete human beings – especially Michel, a man whose character has been tempered through terrible loss and staggering guilt. Theo is less complex, but this is in keeping with her youth, so it never jars.
Fey’s villain is a tormented and complicated soul. His atrocious deeds make us shudder, the despair in his actions is evident, eliciting an odd mix of disgust and compassion from the reader. The reader is kept guessing as to the villain’s identity right to the end, one elegant layer after the other being added to the complex plot. How the book ends, I will not reveal, but by the time those two terrible months are over, Theo is no longer the young woman she was, her innocence and belief in the essential goodness of her fellow man gone for good. Sad? Yes—but very “real”. Fortunately, Theo is young enough to embrace the future and chalk up recent events on her experience account.
Floats the Dark Shadow can be a demanding read. The prose is not of the fast-paced variety and it took some chapters before this reader was fully hooked. It is also full of literary references – a delight for those among us who have stumbled upon them before, perhaps a challenge to others. But for those that persevere beyond the first few pages, Yves Fey offers quite the insight into the long-gone Paris of the Belle Epoque. The language is sensuous and rich, it weaves a tapestry of sound and scents, of events and emotions, which transports the reader to those brief weeks a long gone May, when the trees rained cherry blossom from above, while in the darker recesses of the city, evil prowled.