Breath and Shadows

Written by Ella Leffland
Review by Alexandra Ceely

Three generations of the Rosteds, a Danish family, come to life in sparkling snapshots in Breath and Shadows. We read, in alternating segments, about the foul tempered dwarf Thorkild in the early nineteenth century; the enchanting but haunted Grethe, Thorkild’s great-granddaughter, in Copenhagen in the 1880’s; and the rather dull Chicagoans Paula and Phillip, Grethe’s grandchildren, in 1989.

While this description gives us the bare bones of the characters and their relationships, you must read the book to find the connections between generations. Unfortunately, connections are few and far between. Set in three different time periods roughly 100 years apart, there is no sense of story besides a few tenuous threads between the generations; a mysterious needlepoint rug, a cryptic saying, a silhouette portrait, and insanity. The story is not easy to follow. The author throws the readers off balance with sudden tense changes, keeps them guessing which time period they will read about next, and throws in poetic descriptions of a cave in France as if this is the true connection between the generations.

Breath and Shadows is not truly a historical novel. Historical events are only mentioned as background to the events in the book. “Family saga” does not quite fit, either, as the book only looks at a few significant events in the lives of three non-connected generations of the family.

In the book’s favor, the writing is a pleasure to read in most places. “Haunting” is the word used by most reviewers, and the work does have a kind of ethereal and lyrical quality to it. The author has managed to capture a certain flavor of each time period (is that why the more modern characters feel so dull?). The author also tries to give the reader a taste of madness, a central theme of the book.

Breath and Shadows is a quiet book in which the actual writing is more enchanting than the story, and one that moves from disturbing to downright gloomy.