Lindsay Stern grew up in New York City. She lives in Massachusetts, where she is completing her B.A. in English and Philosophy at Amherst College. Town of Shadows is her first book.
"Lindsay Stern's brilliant, urgent vignettes depict a people struggling to make sense of the limits of language and time. A dark and fascinating debut."
"This is the work not of an intellectual game, but of a visceral spiritual matter that exists and disappears, exists and disappears, even on and off the page as you read.”
"Town of Shadows is Winesburg, Ohio coated in arsenic, stippled with word math, and carved on a butterfly’s body. What Lindsay Stern creates here is throttling and gorgeous, a child’s hand grasping for a lightning storm trapped in a white balloon.”
"Stern's passion for language is infectious; she's in love with words, and by the end of this brilliant novella, you'll be in love too. A remarkable debut."
I don't know what I expected from Lindsay Stern's novella, Town of Shadows, but it wasn't what I got.
Waiting for my car to be fixed, sitting in the dealership's plastic chair with all the other strange folk who drive cars that don't properly work, I flicked on my Kindle and decided I'd read a few pages while I waited. Luckily for me, the wait ended up being much longer than expected.
It's not a long read and so I was able to read it in about ninety minutes, but those are powerful pages and an emotional ninety minutes.
It's a peculiar book, relying on more than sentences and stories to give you the life it holds within. Full of odd math problems and experimental notations and lists and poetry and definitions that seem all wrong, Stern disorients the reader by dropping us in the middle of this town where nothing is quite what it seems to be, where absurdity and magic are just a skipped breath away.
For a long time the mayor required all citizens to wear small wooden cages
on their heads. The idea was to trap their thoughts before they wafted
behind another’s eyes, between another’s ears. At first the results were
satisfactory. Then came the complications: the cages filled until the mayor
could no longer distinguish one face from the next. Through the bars he
discerned only light — red for politicians, for philosophers bright blue, and
for children the glint of candleflame. They were happily blind, watching
their thoughts unfold before them as the objects of the world ticked on.
It is these little touches of magic that grabbed me early on, held me close as it whispered the life of this strange little town full of strange humans doing almost human things that were just a few shades off.
Lately, Pierre has felt his brain expanding. Growing lighter, as if swollen with
air. This morning, a thrust against the roof of his skull. Last night, a pressure
in his jaw. Before long, he suspects, the whole machine will burst. Words will
trickle through his ears, scamper back into the world. So as not to forget
them, he has built a lexicon:
Mirror, n. A palindrome.
Loneliness, n. Wordlessness.
Indigestion, n. Swallowed noise.
Making the disorientation begin to feel natural, I found myself accepting Stern's definitions, agreeing with them, assimilating them into the fabric of my life. While the novella shifts and bends reality, like dancing shadows, it manages to grow in realness and even the oddity of this town of shadows feels right.
It feels true.
And as I sat there reading, my car forgotten, the people around me just noise, the world Stern created began to collapse and my heart collapsed with it. All that reality she wove so tightly together, making a world like one I would dream of if I only knew to dream that way, began to unravel and it hurt. It hit me hard, harder than I expected.
I was caught in that town with them and I never even realized, never saw it happening until the walls were all crumbling and then I was disoriented in a new way, falling back into the world beyond the page, where I had to go talk to a mechanic about what he did and then drive that car home to see what the rest of the day held for me.
I didn't know who Lindsay Stern was before opening Town of Shadows, but I don't think I'll ever forget now that I've closed it.