“The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt is, as the title indicates, the story of a boy whose physical form doesn’t cast a shadow. Not only that, but like vampires of certain legends, he also has no reflection. This condition causes some practical difficulties. For example, the boy (whose name is Look) can’t use a mirror to fix his hair, can’t be photographed or seen on TV, and more basically, he can’t see what he looks like. Yet, for Look, the problem seems more existential. When a classmate taunts him, telling him that without a reflection he doesn’t actually exist, it’s clear that he’s tapped into one of Look’s real preoccupations.
A new boy arrives in Look’s class — Splinter — and he’s made of glass. At first, Look wants nothing to do with this other freak of nature, but eventually they become friends. The day-to-day problems stemming from Splinter’s condition are more obviously serious, including a lack of flexibility in his limbs and an overall dangerous fragility. With Splinter as well, there is also an existential component. As Look explains: Polished, he was a perfect mirror… how could he ever discover himself when all he saw in his skin was the outside world reflected?
The strange conditions of these two boys are described with a generous amount of pseudo-scientific detail. The glass body syndrome is said to run in families, although the boy who casts no shadow is more of an anomaly. Despite Olde Heuvelt’s attempt to integrate the existence of these physically bizarre boys into the real world, it may not be easy for readers to suspend disbelief. Both conditions seem absurd, as was the case with Joe Hill’s inflatable boy in the story “Pop Art”, to which Olde Heuvelt is paying homage. Of course, these conditions have symbolic significance, which give meaning and depth to the tale. Nevertheless, at least for this reader, the moments when the metaphors resonated most strongly were also the moments that most pulled me out of the story.
Despite this small criticism, the novelette succeeds on many different levels. This is, first and foremost, a tale about difference and how it is treated (or, rather, mistreated) by society. Adding to the strength of the story is that Olde Heuvel takes an intersectional approach, for the boy who casts no shadow is also gay.
Another important issue in the story is the struggle to be seen for who you are and to see yourself truly. Look’s inability to glimpse his own reflection or to even have a reflection brings to mind the difficulties of only valuing yourself in relation to how you are valued by others, particularly in a society whose majority values may be shallow and conformist. That the main characters are adolescents adds a poignant weight to this issue, particularly in a world where suicide is one of the leading causes of death for 14 – 18-year-olds in many countries, particularly for boys and even more so for QUILTBAG youth.
For Look, a boy with no reflection, it takes a boy who is all reflection to put his problems into perspective. As he notes: At our age you think the depths of your own hell are the darkest. Splinter proved it could be worse. A little self-reflection aint a bad thing. At the same time, Splinter appreciates Look because he is the only one who regards Splinter’s mirrored surface and sees Splinter rather than his own reflection.
Because Splinter’s fragility puts him in constant mortal danger, his parents are extremely protective, literally wrapping him in lawyers of protective material. Splinter is desperate to experience life — to touch and be touched, to directly sense the world. In reference to this, Look notes, When your parents treat you like you’re made of glass, it leaves permanent damage. Inevitably, the boys run off on an adventure together. For one of them, it is to discover life, for the other, it is to discover himself.
What brings this story together is the the strength and authenticity of the voice of the young narrator.
In the beginning of the story, Look tells us that he has no feelings, no friends and no imagination. I lack a goal. I lack depth. Like I care. Later on, when Splinter is being victimized at school, Look candidly admits that he was glad it wasn’t him. This precocious cynicism feels well-earned, and because Look grows and matures in the story, it ultimately adds to our sympathies for the character. It also camouflages an emerging thoughtful adult. Later in the story, Look tells us: Time has taught me that we live in a world… that thrives on the destruction of its rare wonders and where people live under a blanket of smog, the stench of sameness.
The narrator also has an eye for beauty, as when he and Splinter are sitting by the ocean watching their playing cards blow away: Without a word, we watched hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades flutter to the west. The low sun transformed the ocean into a bright, orange mirror.
This is a moving story, but it is told by our adolescent narrator without a drop of sentimentality. This not only lends authenticity to Look’s voice but gives the story a clean sharpness. Because of this, when, at the end, the emotional payoff arrives, the reader is not left feeling manipulated.
“The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” is a coming of age story that is both a tragedy and a triumph, elucidating the problem of how society treats difference and showing us a pathway through which is unique and strangely beautiful.