(Little Tiger, 2021)
Review by Latifa Akay
When Shadows Fall tells the story of a tight-knit community on a council estate, at the heart of which is Kai, his parents and three close friends, Orla, Zak and Om. The backdrop to this story is the local ‘rec’, Greenlands, and the ‘bothy’, a hideaway discovered by Kai and his dreamer dad, Dexter.
The melancholic ‘broken throat music’ of Dexter’s sax playing ebbs and flows throughout the story, filtering through the estate from the balcony of their home, interspersed by the cries and caws of an ever-present population of ravens, to which Kai and his dad are intimately attached.
From the outset we understand Kai as a seer; a sentimental soul deeply in tune with the welfare and emotions of those around him – namely his parents, and friend Orla, who he spends years secretly in love with. When Kai’s baby sister dies unexpectedly, his fragile world folds in around him and what feels like an insurmountable darkness descends. Kai’s relationships collapse, he is excluded from school and his parents’ mental health declines.
Despite being a story of profound sadness and injustice, When Shadows Fall also feels like a story of hope. When everything is crumbling, there are still possibilities – hope lies in the power of relationships, of community and solidarity. Sita Brahmachari manages to paint these possibilities while not romanticising what it means to actually have to rely on one another for survival, or the ways in which this can play out. The young protagonists of this book and the adults in their lives experience profound joy together, but also fall out, hurt each other – often without intending to – make decisions they regret, and grow together and apart.
The harms and the struggles that the characters in this book experience are contextualised by the state systems that cause them. Kai’s parents’ mental health struggles are a result of financial strain, poverty and, in his father’s case, experience of being in care as a child. The community’s struggle to save their communal space, Greenlands – ‘this tiny bit of earth is our land’ – reflects efforts up and down the UK to hold on to what remains of community spaces after nearly fifteen years of austerity. When Kai is excluded from school, we see the reality of what this frighteningly normalised practice of abandonment – specifically for Black children and young people in the UK – does to a young person’s life. Kai spirals, falls into danger and almost loses his life. As his friend Om writes, ‘I wanted to tell my teacher… let him back in, this is the safest place for him’. Powerfully, the ‘gang’ that Kai falls in with during this time, who expose him to danger, are not demonised – they are children, too, and the roots of the problem don’t lie with them.
Brahmachari tells all this with a lyricism and craft that feels like a testament to the preciousness of the characters and the things they hold on to. Kai writes, ‘It felt like I had discovered a missing chord in me’ after kissing Orla. When he is on the way home from the garden centre holding a tree to plant in memory of his sister, he writes, ‘now Sula’s funeral seems like yesterday, and I feel like I’m carrying my sister’s coffin home’.
Brahmachari addresses readers in her acknowledgements: ‘I hope you can find your own way to express what cannot always be held in one linear form’. In When Shadows Fall, she shifts in time, between forms – poetry, prose, illustration – and narrative voice, in a way that always feel apt. When Kai’s friend Om takes over narrating halfway through the book, we see Kai for the first time through someone else’s eyes: ‘I saw you, Kai – a tall boy-man, broad shoulders with coiled hair like my missing brother Ishy. The way you held your head low reminded me of him so much it hurt.’
Brahmachari’s characters show us what it means to ‘find your words’ after you’ve lost them, and why that matters. Through this multi-narrative, collectively told story, we are reminded that what keeps people together in adversity is being held, and that there are many ways for us to hold each other.