A dark thriller with a pace-pumping secret, Shadows the Sizes of Cities is a book that feels its way around the world as if searching by touch, sound, and smell in the dark. Author Gregory W. Beaubien delivers this debut novel about a young American travel writer exploring North Africa and beyond with a small group of friends.
Will Clark narrates this story, which has him traveling with friends through such places as Chicago, Amsterdam, Morocco, and Spain. The novel explores elements of class divisions, alienation, and relationships while Will looks for ways to make himself feel whole again. Gangs, drugs, and murder quickly become part of the picture, and it soon becomes obvious that Will is not revealing the whole truth about his purpose abroad.
Beaubien follows his roots as a reporter and travel writer for The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and Travel and Leisure. His novel displays a skill for journalism, building scenes with sensory details that allow the reader to taste the roasted lamb kabobs and smell the rotten meat hanging above a dirt floor. What the novel is lacking in developed relationships, it nearly makes up for with an intense pace that is at times excruciatingly slow and heart-pumpingly fast. Live-action fight and chase scenes explode with vivid details and a sparse, spot-on narration. This pace propels the plot forward, despite the plot-holes along the way.
It is when the novel slows and attempts to build characters that the plot thins, and when those characters are easily discarded, the plot seems nearly transparent. Instead of amplifying the mystery, the disappearing characters seem to create plot holes, as if those shadows of individuals were forgotten. Conversations end mid-sentence and then—poof!—the character is never spoken of again. A near-constant reference to a ghost-like man called only “the Dutchman” and a blonde mystery woman build a suspense that, unfortunately, is never fully realized. Although the woman gets her time in the limelight, a much needed confrontation with the spectral Dutchman is avoided and—poof!—the plot moves on.
In the end, Will Clark travels far and wide, showing the reader an accurately detailed glimpse of exotic places, dots on a map that become fully realized homes and towns and people. But Will stops at the edge of the Algerian desert, and his character travels no further than the first page emotionally.
With an ending that is at best unsatisfactory and at worst confusing, this novel struggles to reach its full potential. Beaubien knows his business, and that is engaging reporting. As for the developed characters and plot required of a full-length novel, it is as if an expert on sensory detail is feeling his way around in the dark throughout Shadows the Sizes of Cities.
June 2014, Moresby Press
$14.95 paperback, 240 pages
—Reviewed by Mindy Jones