Shade, By Neil Jordan, Bloomsbury, 275 pp., paperback, $14.95
Americans know Neil Jordan primarily as the director of the 1992 sleeper hit ''The Crying Game." But he's also one of Ireland's most accomplished novelists. ''Shade," his fourth novel, covers territory familiar to viewers of Jordan's films: a dark world fraught with moral ambiguities, explored in a prose every bit as beautiful and compelling as his scriptwriting and cinematography.
''Shade" isn't a novel for those who like happy endings, or happy beginnings, for that matter: The main character is murdered on the first page. Nina Hardy, a celebrated Irish actress, is killed by her gardener and childhood friend, George. The rest of the novel is an existential post-mortem conducted in shifting viewpoints.
Nina's half brother, Gregory, returns from England to arrange the funeral and see Nina's oldest friend (and George's sister), Janie. As children and teenagers, the four of them had been inseparable. Gregory and Janie go back over their lives and try to figure out where it all went wrong, and especially where George went wrong, growing from a good-hearted if awkward child into a dim and frequently insane adult. And as they talk and drink and remember, Nina's ghost watches them and frequently narrates, coursing back from her death through her life -- and through Janie's and Gregory's and George's.
The all-too believable, all-too human darkness of their lives is enthralling. In ''Shade," friendship is simply a series of opportunities to hurt someone, and love is merely a pretty word for pain. One of the many factors that doom these four to cause one another heartache is class: Nina and Gregory are the children of the squire of Baltray House; Janie and George grow up in the cottage of a tugboat pilot. As they progress through adolescence, they approach the threshold of a world designed to separate them. Janie and George, dazzled since childhood by their beautiful, aristocratic friends, love two people who will never love them back -- at least not in the way they want to be loved. As Nina says to Gregory, ''I wish it was comic, but I suspect it's tragic."
At the beginning of World War I, Gregory and George join the army and are shipped off to the Dardanelles. Nina, who has always had a passion for the theater, leaves home to become an actress -- then an unacceptable occupation for a lady of her class. Janie stays at home and trains for a teaching certificate. In 1918, George and Gregory return from the war. George, disfigured and well on his way to insanity, comes home to an Ireland in revolt against British rule, where Irishmen who have served in the king's army are considered fair targets for vigilante violence. In London, Gregory finds Nina, who has become a successful silent film actress, and becomes her manager.
In many ways, the plot loses momentum from this point until very near the end, after World War II, when Nina returns to Baltray House after her parents' deaths and hires George as her gardener, in hopes that work he likes and the company of a face he's always known will help restore his sanity. Then, paradoxically, the pace quickens toward the end we've known from the first, Nina's death at George's hands.
One of Jordan's achievements in this novel is the densely textured world his characters grow up in -- a bucolic, Catholic County Meath whose society is merely the latest layer atop centuries of violence and paganism -- as well as the work of the place, the labors of the tugboat pilots, fishermen, and farmers.
Unfortunately, the vivid realities make the novel's weak patches all the more glaring. The character of Janie almost never achieves the fullness of Nina, Gregory, or George. And in the section set during World War I she fades to the vanishing point, existing only as a recipient of letters. While in County Meath, Nina and Gregory move in a fully realized landscape; while they live and work in London, they walk through a collage of place names and street signs.
Those failings notwithstanding, ''Shade" is grimly powerful. At one point, Nina considers the question ''How is it possible to feel another's pain?" Try reading fiction.