Of the making and reading of books about C.S. Lewis there seemingly is no end. But readers new to Lewis's life will likely appreciate this re-release, retitling, and re-jacketing of THROUGH THE SHADOWLANDS: The Love Story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman.
However, reader be warned: the subtitle is a bit misleading. Aside from a brief introduction set after Joy's funeral, the story of their relationship doesn't begin until page 77. Those who have read biographies of C.S. Lewis may wish to skip to this point, since Brian Sibley spends the early pages telling the story of Lewis's childhood, his time as a professor at Oxford and with the Inklings, and his publications. Although it's a good recap of Lewis's life, some of the observations are vague, such as allusions to sexual encounters Lewis had in his youth (mentioned without any further explanation) or the mysterious relationship Lewis developed with a Mrs. Moore and her daughter. Readers likely will want to consult other Lewis biographies and commentaries for more in-depth information.
Once Sibley gets down to the business of the relationship between Lewis and Helen Joy Davidman, things begin to pick up. Davidman, a Jewish convert to Christianity and a divorcee with two young sons, David and Douglas, is a complicated, fascinating person as viewed through Sibley's eyes. Compellingly, he sketches out her childhood years with an authoritarian father who alternately demanded his children respond to commands given on a whistle and then repeatedly slapped them about the face when they disobeyed. Joy was, as Sibley describes her, chubby, nearsighted, and overprotected by her mother. She loved animals, and became increasingly rebellious at home under the domineering influence of her father.
Her solace was books, and Davidman later became a poet, novelist and teacher --- and interestingly enough, a member of the Communist party. Delight in George MacDonald books such as PHANTASTES and THE BACK OF THE NORTH WIND led her to the fantasy novels of Lewis, which would eventually, Sibley explains, point her toward religion and, of course, a marriage to Lewis.
Sibley chronicles in detail Davidman's difficult marriage to the alcoholic philanderer and novelist Bill Gresham and her own maturation as a mother and a writer. It's with this background that he begins the description of her correspondence with Lewis, starting in 1950, their subsequent meetings and relationship, through her diagnosis with cancer and eventual death.
Adeptly, Sibley shows how Lewis is left with his previous writings on pain, suffering, and faith, and the inadequacies of his own words in the face of his grief. "Many of Jack's admirers would have been deeply shocked if they had known that he had even entertained such doubts, or admitted such fears," writes Sibley. Lewis's doubts and sorrow eventually led to A GRIEF OBSERVED, one of his bestselling books. Sibley's account of the couple's time together, Lewis's response to Davidman's death, and his own acceptance of his illness and approaching demise make the last hundred pages of THROUGH THE SHADOWLANDS an absorbing read.
Sibley does an excellent job smoothly transitioning between excerpted materials and quotes, and his own narrative. However, one of the most serious faults of the books is its lack of crediting specific source material. Although the acknowledgments list the publications Sibley draws from, individual excerpts and quotes are not footnoted or endnoted. For anyone who is already a devotee of all things Lewis, this oversight means they cannot go off on the delightful tangents of extended reading inspired by specific citations. Since this book was originally released in 1985 as C.S. LEWIS: THROUGH THE SHADOWLANDS, it's disappointing that subsequent reprintings haven't included some revision to address this shortcoming.
This might be best read by readers who are newcomers to the life of C.S. Lewis and who desire an overview of his life and marriage, rather than by those already familiar with the numerous books about Lewis's life. With Lewis's THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE making another transition to the big screen in 2005, this will serve as a good introduction to Lewis and Davidman's life together.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on July 1, 2005