Review

The Chameleon’s Shadow

by Minette Walters

THE
CHAMELEON’S SHADOW opens with glaring headlines announcing
the brutal beating deaths of “Martin Britton, a 71-yr-old
retired civil servant [and] Harry Peel, a 57-yr-old taxi
driver.” If the murders are connected, the only common links
so far are their homosexual activities and the fact that they lived
alone. Another possible but tenuous tie is their associations with
prostitutes of both sexes.


As the narrative unfolds, readers meet Lt. Charles Acland, the
former driver of a three-man Scimitar “reconnaissance vehicle
that is part of a convoy [traveling along] part of the highway that
linked Bosra to Baghdad.” They could not know that
“four Iraqis…crouched in the upper story of an
abandoned roadside building…[had them in their sights with]
long-range binoculars.” By the time Lt. Acland realizes that
something in their path doesn’t look right, “it was too
late. The roadside bombs, a collection of anti-tank mines rigged to
produce [an enormous] blast detonated simultaneously as the vehicle
passed between them.” Two of the soldiers die, but Acland
survives the explosion.


“Lt. Charles Acland sustained serious head and facial
injuries during the attack…the patient’s injuries
suggest brain damage likely.” One side of his face, including
his eye, has been burned away. The doctors in the field hospital do
what they can for his wounds. Then he is repatriated back to
England where his physical and psychological damage can be treated.
No one knows what his future will be, and he will have a long and
painful stay in the South General Hospital, Birmingham, UK.


When he awakens from his coma, he is completely disoriented,
terrified, subsumed in pain, angry, confused, suffering from acute
post-traumatic stress disorder --- and has gone through a
personality change so dramatic that he himself doesn’t
recognize who he is or was. In the hospital he gets fine
psychiatric care from a very sympathetic Dr. Willis, who goes so
far as to contact Jen, the former fiancée, to see if she can
help by telling him anything about Acland. She is only too happy to
share her opinions of her former lover: “Charlie is a
chameleon. He projects different images to different people. With
his regiment, he is a man’s man; with me he’s a
woman’s man; with his parents he clams up and pretends
he’s not there.”


After this interchange, Dr. Willis finally admits that Acland is
not helping in his recovery and concludes that he doesn’t
remember exactly what happened in Iraq, except perhaps
survivor’s guilt. “Willis talked about alienation and
social withdrawal…a blunt appraisal of how isolation could
lead to…[obsessing] about single issues --- usually people or
topics that made him angry.” Acland responds only to the last
issue: “You’re making me nervous, Doc.” And in
the wake of the information about the danger his hermit-like
behavior put him in, he places a call to his parents. But “he
found it easier to show no emotion at all, which was a truer
reflection of now he felt, for without the means to demonstrate joy
or empathy, the sensations themselves seemed to have withered and
died.”


Nevertheless, Dr. Willis agrees to release his patient as long as
he stays with a psychiatrist who owns a bed and breakfast and can
keep an eye on him. Acland is told that he is going to have to work
on his self-control as he meanders through the twists and turns of
his dark journey “back to the world.” He doesn’t
stay at the B&B and ends up on the street going from pillar to
post. His twisted and convoluted perceptions of people and events
propel him into an emotional downward spiral, reinforcing his
desire to be alone to think.


Acland works his way to London and finds out just how much he has
changed. He is sitting at the bar in a pub when a Pakistani touches
him with a finger to get his attention. He goes berserk and easily
could have killed the man without a second thought. But the
half-partner in the bar, a very large and strong weightlifting
lesbian named Jackson who is also a doctor, breaks up the fracas.
She has empathy for Acland despite his cold and secretive
demeanor.


Acland despises all women. He hates his mother, as well as former
fiancée Jen, who strolls into his hospital room uninvited.
They argue, and Acland keeps telling her to leave for her own
safety. But she is a stubborn narcissist who bears a resemblance to
actress Uma Thurman and believes her looks will conquer any man.
She pushes him too far and is lucky to be able to walk out of the
facility alive. He barely tolerates the touches of the nurses in
the hospital, and his temper is triggered if anyone puts a finger
on him, even in jest. She tries and tries to reach Acland, who
lives above the pub for a little while, but he ends up taking to
the streets and roams for miles and miles.


At the same time, the “gay killer” is still at large,
and the police are ready to pin the murders on almost anyone. When
an old soldier, a “man of the streets” for decades, is
beaten up, Acland is a likely suspect. Ironically, he relies on
Jackson, who ignores his rudeness and dark personality, to help
him. But Acland has lost the ability to make connections that are
warm and human.


As the narrative moves from inside Acland’s head, his
migraines, his post-traumatic stress, his self-imposed starvation
and his overwhelming need to be alone, the pacing becomes more
intense and remains realistic. In an interview, Minette Walters
says, “This is a book about anger…it's difficult to
understand at the beginning why [Charles Acland] is so angry and as
the book unfolds you begin to understand…but there's a lot of
other anger in the book…which isn't to say it's a completely
bleak novel...”


She goes on to say: "There are two very strong characters in the
story who build a relationship --- there's Charles Acland himself,
who's the injured soldier, and there's Jackson, who's a doctor who
tries to help him. As ever in my books, I've got two stories,
really, running parallel with each other, but they are linked in a
very strong way…"


Walters has a reputation for building suspense without it being
contrived. The themes for which she is famous are focused on
psychological acting out and/or relationships between characters.
She also limns characters who are believable, acting and
communicating in ways that suit their personalities. She sustains
the tension and suspense to the final sentence of THE
CHAMELEON’S SHADOW. Readers are left to ponder if Acland is a
serial killer, or an unfortunate young man who came back from
fighting in Iraq as a “dead man walking.”


   























Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on December 26, 2010

The Chameleon’s Shadow
by Minette Walters

  • Publication Date: January 8, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0307264637
  • ISBN-13: 9780307264633