Marta Balcewicz’s debut novel, Big Shadow, begins with Judy, the seventeen-year-old narrator, describing her curious summer job before starting university: she has been entrusted by her cousin Christopher and his friend Alex to “watch the passing clouds.” She spends her days noticing how they “set themselves apart, by becoming shapes that had nothing to do with one another: wedding veils, curdled milk, trails of horse droppings perfectly spaced out.” And she carries a notebook in which to record the many differences. “That one went on its way,” she writes of one cloud. “There was nothing unusual in that one.” Judy’s nephological bona fides are deceptively simple. Christopher and Alex feel that she is “uniquely qualified to be the one who observed.”
Big Shadow is about perception, observation, and defamiliarizing the mundane world, whether through clouds or otherwise. Taking place in an unnamed small American town over five weeks in the summer of 1998, the plot follows Judy as she finds herself increasingly isolated and estranged from Christopher and Alex, who become caught up in a conspiracy theory: that a specific cloud known as the Big Shadow will come to change their lives. As the two young men exit her life, Maurice Blunt, an aging poet and former “legendary musician” from New York City’s 1970s punk scene, enters it.
With his “ripped jeans and rough disappointment,” Maurice is a caricature of a punk poet, dismissing his fans for being too eager and fleeing the small town after teaching his class at the local university each Wednesday. He meets Judy during a chance encounter in a rainstorm; she speaks only briefly before he declares her “one of the smartest people I’ve met.” Maurice invites Judy to his class, ignoring the school’s policy against the auditing of summer courses (especially ones that are already full). “I want you in the room with me,” he tells her. “Actually, I need you there.”
After finding and reading a copy of Maurice’s The River That Rhymes with Insane, Not Sex, published eighteen years earlier, she decides to attend and manages to leave a note in the pocket of his leather jacket. Now his interests in her become even more inappropriate. Maurice invites Judy to travel to Manhattan to stay with him on the weekends. She begins lying to her mother, saying that she’s still spending time with Christopher and Alex while flying Delta back and forth to the big city.
It’s on a rooftop overlooking Ninth Street that the improper relationship abruptly stops several weeks later: “I stood as close to that precipice as I could and sensed that I was doing something mildly dangerous, but it all seemed in line with what I’d done in coming to see an old famous artist-man in New York.” Judy’s indifference to her own safety, at least beyond a dalliance with him, scares Maurice. “Your parents would’ve murdered me if you’d fallen,” he tells her. “They would’ve killed me. Maybe think of that.” Back downstairs, he sleeps on the couch rather than sharing his bed with her one last time. This trip is also the one on which she gets caught by her mother. “Crimes against minors weren’t treated lightly,” Judy imagines. “I could picture his neighbours looking out of their doors and windows as he was led out of the building, wearing his Western shirt, jeans, and his cowboy boots, and not looking like other men his age.”
Big Shadow shines not for its plot — this is, very clearly, not a plot-driven novel — but for its style. As an ekphrastic narrator, Judy reads as an artist in development, one who recognizes beauty and nuance in the everyday. But she is also young and cannot help but be bored with it all. Balcewicz develops Judy’s lack of interest in social engagement, in particular, through incredibly detailed attention to form.
An unimportant nighttime walk, for example, becomes a moment of beauty, with the tall grass alongside the road “reflecting a dapple of light from faraway properties.” The feel of gravel under Judy’s sneakers is of “the slightest grind,” as if she is on a “soft beach.” The land around her is as “vast and quiet” as she’d ever experienced it, but it’s also still alive, with dandelions blooming “unimpeded around drainage gates.” For Judy, the seemingly commonplace scene had “an epiphanic quality, or whatever it is that floods a person with realizations that normally stay out of reach.”
With similarly descriptive phrasing on almost every page, this novel is a delectable feast for readers attuned to language. Judy’s preference for noticing rather than engaging becomes a kind of treatise on critical discernment. Judy knows that true artists, even emerging ones, must view the world with an eye for the telling detail. And she takes her observer role seriously, suggesting early in the novel that her “notebook notations weren’t far from saving a life.”
Ultimately, Big Shadow illustrates how beauty in literature is fundamentally about perspective. Fiction can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary — something mundane into something worth noticing. All it takes is someone “uniquely qualified to be the one who observed.”