Breath and Shadows

Breath and Shadows, Ella Leffland’s first novel since 1990, intertwines the lives of three generations of a Danish family, spanning three centuries. Leffland jumps through time, focusing first on one generation, and then another, each chapter providing insight and character development. The story thus moves through the slow accretion of information, garnered by the reader through glimpses and vignettes.

The earliest generation is that of Thorkild the Counselor, a grotesque dwarf, stunted not only physically, but also emotionally by the loss of his wife, and later his son. His sister, Bodil, a stern pragmatist, and his brother, The Bishop, a man of the church, also figure in these chapters. Thorkild’s grief pushes the dwarf inevitably toward madness.

Grethe and Holger, both descended from the three members of the first generation, further connect the family with their marriage in the nineteenth century. Grethe’s life seems idyllic, but she is tormented by the imagined cries of her grandfather, “The Pierced One,” and she, too, descends into madness.

Paula and Philip, brother and sister, comprise the final generation in the 1980’s. They are Americans, but Paula lives simply in Switzerland, trying to coax art out of stones. Her family believes that she has lost her mind in her retreat from her former luxurious lifestyle. Philip, however, soon comes to see Paula’s choice as an act of sanity, and begins to make preparation for his own retreat from his former life.

While Leffland’s book provides a meditation on the transience of human existence, it also suggests that the genes remember, passing from one generation to the next the essence of family traits.