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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

From the Shadows

Juan José Millás

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To purchase From the Shadows

Title: From the Shadows
Author: Juan José Millás
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 207 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: From the Shadows - US
Desde la sombra - US
From the Shadows - UK
From the Shadows - Canada
Dall'ombra - Italia
Desde la sombra - España
  • Spanish title: Desde la sombra
  • Translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn

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Our Assessment:

B : beautiful (and often amusing) little story, but (too) gossamer-light

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El País . 25/4/2016 Jordi Gracia
World Lit. Today . Winter/2020 R.A.Papinchak

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sin rebajar nada del aire risueño de sus mejores novelas, fabrica una cruda fábula moral de intención política: el sabotaje de la docilidad rutinaria contra el desvalimiento, la subversión sin sermón del orden pacífico de nuestro tiempo mientras caen como moscas los parados y allí se quedan, invisibles, en la sombra y sin comprender las causas de sus males porque “eso era el poder, la capacidad de actuar desde la sombra”." - Jordi Gracia, El País

  • "A seductive narrator, brisk dialogue, and a unique claustrophobic setting contribute to a distinctive blend of Kafka’s surrealism and Pirandello’s absurdism. (...) The slim novel is a quick, riveting read." - Robert Allen Papinchak, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       From the Shadows centers entirely around Damián Lobo, now in his early forties and recently laid off from his job. He is not in financial straits -- he got a good severance package, has some savings, can rely on unemployment support for the next few years -- but certainly otherwise feels somewhat at sea. With little close contact to others, he's taken to playing out dialogue in his mind, imagining himself being interviewed on a television show ("with stratospheric viewing figures"), in front of a live studio audience: "a mechanism for conversing with himself".
       Lobo is conscious that this alternate reality he immerses himself in -- often running concurrently with the real one -- is only in his head. He's not deluded; it's simply a fallback mechanism he uses to engage with himself, an elaborate form of self-analysis as well as a stage on which he can get the attention missing elsewhere. So also, there's a considerable focus on the ebb and flow of the questioning, and how the audience reacts -- and the subject-matters and topics that draw in more viewers.
       A small transgression leads to a small comedy of errors that finds Lobo needing to slip out of sight briefly. He does so by slipping into an enormous wardrobe he comes across -- only to find that the wardrobe is picked up and transported to the house of someone who has bought it -- with, unbeknownst to anyone (beyond the observation of how heavy the piece of furniture is: "Christ ! Feels like there's a dead body in there"), Lobo still stashed inside. The wardrobe had been purchased by Lucía, who was stunned to discover that it was the old wardrobe from her grandparents' home, complete with the repeated markings of her and her brother's heights over the years still visible -- a blast from the past that she can't resist.
       Lucía is married to Federico -- a marriage that is pretty tired and routine by now -- and they have a moody teenage daughter, María. Lobo can't make good his escape from the wardrobe when it is first put in place -- or rather can, but only as far as the couple's bed, under which he hides for the first night -- but then decides he might want to stick around. The design of the huge wardrobe is such that there's a large dead space at the back of it. With a bit of work, Lobo transforms it into a small hidden room of his own. And he moves in.
       The family is away during the day, so he can putter around the house (and clean up behind the messy family), and when they're home he remains well-hidden in his secret room. It seems fairly easy not to leave traces of his presence behind, and he rather takes to this odd new living situation -- often still with his imagined interviewer for company. And though the husband and wife occasionally look into the wardrobe and fetch things from it, they remain oblivious to what's almost right in front of their noses: even when they're separated from Lobo just by thin sheet of plywood:

it was as though the two of us occupied parallel dimensions -- simultaneously very close to each other and very far away.
       And rather than feeling isolated and separated from the world at large, Lobo finds:
I'd never felt so free. Like my wardrobe was the center of the universe, like the universe was expanding outward from that very point ...
       The family isn't one of great readers, but there are some books on the supernatural in the attic, and Lobo takes to these; he also goes online, in the persona of the 'Ghost Butler' -- i.e. basically as himself. And eventually he makes contact, of sorts, with Lucía, who recognizes a ghost-presence in the house ever since she bought the wardrobe; the relationship remains on this other plane, Lucía accepting Lobo as a ghostly presence, but it certainly also affects Lobo.
       His relationship with his interviewer, whom he calls Sergio O'Kane, also shifts during his time in the wardrobe. Lobo dislikes him, and outgrows him in a way, and:
A day came when Damián decided never to go back to the show, and soon after this he learned that it had been discontinued due to woeful viewing figures.
       When he eventually needs a substitute he doesn't revive Sergio O'Kane ("who still occasionally showed up, begging to be brought back to life") but eventually finds (i.e. imagines) another questioner, Iñaki Gabilondo, a cable TV host -- meaning that because: "it was a subscription channel, the ratings could never match those enjoyed by O'Kane, but it was a more select audience".
       Lobo has issues that have weighed on him for much of his life. He's not that close to his father, whom he rarely sees, but he is fixated (including sexually) on his sister, a Chinese girl adopted by his parents two years before he was born; she is often on his mind -- including the concern that she must be wondering what happened to him (even though he mostly keeps his distance from her too -- and, typical for all his relationships, when he finally does get back in touch with her, she tells him she hadn't been particularly worried about not hearing from him for so long).
       Already as a child he felt almost that he, and not his sister, was the adopted one -- and:
I felt like I was the one who'd come into the family unit from outside, from some far-off place.
       The wardrobe, in this household, is an ideal island-refuge -- even if, of course, Lobo remains, in practically every sense, apart from the family and their lives (not to mention the world at large ...). He is, at best, a shadowy presence in their lives.
       It's an entertainingly presented look at social isolation and dependency, the search for a role in life, and in others' lives. Lobo essentially lets himself be swallowed whole, disappearing entirely from the (open) face of the earth -- a vanishing that no one really even notices -- and only slowly does he (re)create a public self, and even more slowly a physical one. Millás pushes Lobo to action with a twist to the family's not-so-happy marriage, as Federico brings a lover home when his wife and daughter are away and Lobo finds a way out his situation; a nice dark touch to the novel (which Millás only carries so far, in leaving his ending fairly wide-open).
       It all works quite well, and certainly makes for an entertaining little tale, with Lobo's fantasized TV interviews a particularly clever and enjoyable touch. Yet From the Shadows ultimately also feels a bit insubstantial -- perhaps appropriate, considering Lobo is meant to be such a shadow of a character ... --, a solid story but somehow not entirely convincing as a novel; indeed, feeling more like a (pleasantly) drawn-out short story. Gossamer light -- with even any ugliness or evil barely having any depth, a sense reïnforced by Lobo's almost entirely untroubled journey (despite the obvious personal hurt, as well as a very dark turn the story eventually takes) --, the narrative in From the Shadows feels almost too anecdotal; perhaps that's what he was going for -- certainly with the TV interviewers, since that's their style --, but it ultimately does limit the resonance of the story.
       Still, this is a good, quick read, all the more gripping for the sustained tension of possible discovery -- of Lobo's presence in the household, as well as more personal discoveries among the various, each in their way troubled, characters.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 September 2019

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From the Shadows: Reviews: Other books by Juan José Millás under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Juan José Millás was born in 1946.

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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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