The story centres on Adrian Wells, a young diplomat stationed in Moscow shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Anna Mikataev, a particle physicist who has discovered how to dissect light in order to manipulate the path of the photon, is accused of murder and may even be a recruit of Iraqi agents. Adrian’s job is to debrief her as she remains concealed in a small basement room inside the Canadian Embassy.
Paradoxically, the strongest writing and most vivid scenes in the novel deal with the domestic world of Adrian and his family, not with politics or science. Manicom burrows into the marriage of Adrian and his acerbic psychologist wife, Kate, charting the ebb and flow of their complex bond. This is a very real marriage. When things are going well back home in Canada, Adrian and Kate’s easy chit-chat is “a latticework between them” – testimony to the “minor miracles of telepathy” they experience as a couple. Yet under duress in early 1990s Moscow, stress and strain take its toll on the pair, and their dialogue crackles and spits with the heat of their friction. Kate spends her days seeking work, as the sole Western medical clinic in Moscow has only one opening for a psychologist, with numerous qualified applicants chasing the job. Adrian questions the mysterious Anna with her lofty brow, high Slavic cheekbones, and “dazzling” almond eyes. While Adrian works late, Kate tries to shop for boots for their daughter, Emily, but the only ones available are trainloads of identical men’s boots and booties for babies.
Manicom deftly depicts how Adrian becomes a stranger, a visitor within his own family. “Some machinery composed of governments and ambition and romance … had successfully extricated him from this family, its bustling authentic glow, its grief and wounds and healing salves.” He is literally the odd man out as the heart of his family shifts to Kate and Emily; painfully, Adrian “saw it in the internal theatres of their lit eyes.”
At times the strain of depicting the internecine twists and turns of the political situation in Russia, and the complexities of Anna’s work as a particle physicist, slow down the narrative and the full realization of its characters. There is a surfeit of acronyms, as well as political and scientific jargon. In his defence, Manicom has the daunting task of enlightening the average reader who may know little or nothing of particle physics and be rusty on Russian history, while making the experts sound natural.
Occasionally, Adrian veers close to becoming the generic young diplomat, nearly lost in a raft of minor characters, and overwritten with Dickensian detail. Fortunately, Anna emerges as a fascinating figure, passionate about her profession and balancing on the tightrope between work and motherhood. Thanks to Anna’s intrigue, one continues to turn the pages. For those who seek a suspenseful read centring on the nexus between science, politics, and romance, Anna’s Shadow is a good choice. mRb