What is Hidden: “A Shadow in Yucatan,” by Philippa Rees

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Work often conceals as much as it reveals. This is true whether the work is made by the corporation, at the construction site, in the art studio, or on the page, in writing. The metaphor is the great human hiding place. The poet stores nuts in poems buried in clay pots. Reading is an anthropological dig. A writer often spends as much time working on what to cut or shut out as what to include, to hold within. Readers are seduced by hidden artifacts, by craft and handiwork, also through secrets, gossip, whispers, and shadows. Can the writer trust the reader? Can the reader trust the writer? Writers have the advantage, since they can hide behind the narrator, while the narrator may hide within the story. The narrator may provide a voice-over. There may be other voices.

“A Shadow in Yucatan,” by Philippa Rees, begins with a secret that Stephanie, the protagonist, won’t be able to keep for long. She lives in Florida, calls her mother in Brooklyn, and explains her predicament, asking for help. Abortion is an existential question for the community, but it comes down to an existential question for two, Stephanie and her child. The theme of shame falls with its wet curtain, but Stephanie transcends the community’s efforts to use shame to control her decision. Who or what is the antagonist?

The writing in “A Shadow in Yucatan” is experimental and mesmerizing, experimental because it wrestles simultaneously with both what should be told, when, what kept hidden, and how the story should be told, mesmerizing because the language seems to have been distilled, its poetic form and novella length (divided into two parts and 21 chapters over 109 pages illustrated with 31 black and white photographs) resulting in a potent mixture of page turning pleasure. This is a book the reader falls into. I read the hard copy, having started with an e-edition, and the reading experience is simply different with the hard copy, more satisfying, both the text and the photographs, though there are of course the advantages of e-editions to readers who prefer them. But somehow, with the hard copy in hand, I could better hear the cadence and symmetry of the sentence structure, see the overall layout of the short chapters, hear the strategy of different voices, understand the purpose of the use of italics throughout, appreciate the fall of the black and white photographs, almost all suggesting something hidden as much as something shown.

Stephanie works in a beauty salon, where her story opens and closes in the symmetry of everyday conversation infused with irony; everyone seems to know something someone else does not, but all the knowing is connected. And of course a beauty salon is where people go to prepare a hidden course of action, to prepare hair and face and nails to improve circulation in the community. The tones of sarcasm and irony that shade Part One give way to a slight risk of sentimentalism in Part Two that is quickly washed away by inflexible socio-economic demographic persistence, where the demographic form is the child’s story, a nursery rhyme, told with the cadence of a lullaby interrupted by an inscrutable language only those properly initiated comprehend. Stephanie is a member of several communities throughout the book, and the nonjudgmental Miriam is something of a “smithy” of an angel.

I very much enjoyed reading this patiently crafted book. The form and content (the how and what) are perfectly blended. The writing is clear and concise, the diction carefully wrought, the sentence structure always varied and interesting, the dialog compelling, the text artistically cast and purposefully divided to invite reading. The dominant impression is of a sculpture, because what could have been a huge novel has been pared down to its essential shape, but the novel is still there, at once exposed and hidden.

“A Shadow in Yucatan,” a novella by Philippa Rees, Cover Design by Philippa Rees and Ana Grigoriu, Book Interior by Philippa Rees, First Print Edition 2006. Collabor Art Books.

Note: The slide show at the top of this post contains photos from my collection. These photos are not connected to Philippa’s book except through the theme of something hidden.


  1. … The dominant impression is of a sculpture, because what could have been a huge novel has been pared down to its essential shape, but the novel is still there, at once exposed and hidden … That sums it up perfectly.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Trying to be careful not to spoil the plot. But the work is truly amazing for its plot development, its characterization (both dynamic and static – those who change and those who do not), its structure of birth and growth. The writing is very capable and competent. Each chapter stands alone as a poetic structure, but they are all linked through setting and plot and character – the novel’s tools.

  2. philipparees says:

    Heavens Joe! I feel somewhat shaky as one does when the rare reader sees to the core. The sculpture is perfect for what for me had to be pared, mainly in deference to the sorrow (shared with the protagonist) that writing it evoked in memory. I cannot really express the feeling your view has evoked, rather humbled to be frank. Thanks is not an adequate word so I cannot really use it. The dynamic and static, the independence and inter-connectedness, you saw it all. I probably did not, not consciously. Once begun it almost wrote itself, in the manner of a myth.If you, or any reader of this fabulous appraisal is interested I wrote a piece on the origins of the work. You can find it here.http://bit.ly/AlliYUC

    Although I regret not pre-empting you buying the book, I am so glad you did.I am overwhelmed!

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks for the link to the question of story origin, Philippa. Very interesting. I did wonder how Yucatan connected to Florida. Another hidden gem. Readers are still free to make their own connections, even if they follow the link in your comment and read something of the author’s story behind the story. And while we might think we have the story behind the story, that story also reveals how fiction is created – I’m sure there are still other hidden gems, the mother in Brooklyn, Cara, for example. I’ve passed the book on to Susan – I’m sure she’ll like it. I’ll be interested in hearing her comments.

      1. philipparees says:

        Water in today’s desert Joe, since I have so few readers! I wonder how many readers realise what such a review means to resolve to keep writing! How close I am to abandoning all hope! Even the jolly court case falls for want of a Jury. When this has run its course here can I ask you to do the usual, and put it for permanent visibility on Amazons?

        1. Joe Linker says:

          Sure. I’ll do that. Meantime, I don’t know what to say about the paucity of readers, the so-called “reading crisis” (have several posts on the blog regarding changing reading habits). There is a blog I’ve followed called “Writers No One Reads.” It’s not so active as it once was. But it’s still good. There will always be the heavily produced blockbusters, as in film and music, by popular demand, but there are also islands of reading communities, and to have discovered and landed on even one to share some reading and writing is a remarkable experience. Writing is one activity, publishing another, enter the blog. A writer I’ve known and admired greatly over the years once told me that publishing a second novel is more difficult than getting a first novel published. Of course, while she knew this, how would I ever know it? And wouldn’t that be a good problem to have? Change is developmental and incremental, as is writing. As for readers, most of us are hopelessly lost in an archipelago of books, magazines, journals, blogs, not to mention movies, television, newspapers, and radio. Even most traditionally published novels find few readers. But literature lives on, because in the end, it’s all we have, a poem scratched into a rock buried beneath an avalanche of sound and fury.

          1. philipparees says:

            and signifying very little? Probably. Just as well to be brought back to earth but flying was fun while it lasted, and thanks for Graf Zeppelin experience!

            1. Joe Linker says:

              No, the challenge is to keep writing in spite of significations. Faulkner wrote a novel titled “The Sound and the Fury.” Of course he got the title from Shakespeare (the first episode of Faulkner’s novel is literally a “tale told by an idiot”). Faulkner’s message of endurance in the novel is echoed in his Nobel Price acceptance speech: “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” It seems to me that “A Shadow in Yucatan” does just this.

  3. Based on this selection, I feel like you would really like Roberto Bolano’s novellas. Of course, his longer works like The Savage Detectives and 2666 are amazing as well. Just trying to spread the word on an author that we here at RoughTradeBlog think is amazing.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Yes, thanks. I’ve read a couple of Bolano’s shorter works, “Amulet.” But I’ve not read those gigantic works you mentioned. I recently read Monica Maristain’s biography, which I found interesting.

  4. Joe, your appreciation of Philippa,s work is so wonderfully expressed and eloquent in itself. What an inspiring person you are to all writers. Shadow in Yucatan is beautiful,int it?

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Loretta. Yes, “Shadow” is a remarkably beautiful work, a multifaceted work. On Philippa’s site, there’s a clip of a reading by a number of readers, and listeners can hear the cadence of speech and the mix of narrative and reflective prose and in character voices. It would be a big project, but it be grand to hear the whole book read aloud. Philippa seems full of life and sparkle and herself is a good listener. Very little is repeated. The vocabulary is extensive. The close attention to detail is professionally rendered. There are these little parts of sarcasm or satire that seem to slip out, so in the midst of all this drama you also find yourself smiling some.

  5. philipparees says:

    I have the whole work done by those readers Joe. They were a bunch of professional actors who gave up a night and a day at the home of a friend to run through one read through before recording in a single session. There were some good moments when we were discussing judicious cuts, and the woman reading ‘Stephanie’ said Its a bit like deciding where to cut Hamlet ‘To be or not to be? Does that work? Nah let’s cut it!

    I originally hoped to persuade the BBC and it was Prunella Scales who asked for the recording, and then forgot why she had!

    I would put it out as an audio book but because of a few cuts and some added music ( too much and a bit too loud) Audible won’t approve it. So the only alternative it to re-record myself. You might get an impression of the voice ( mine, smoky, short of breath from a lifelong affair with tobacco) in the short readings from Involution . If interested you can find here http://involution-odyssey.com/three-readings-from-involution/ Not at all the same kind of writing since it has to carry a chronology. They are very short about 3-4 minutes.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      To be or not to be; that is the question, now without antecedent.

      I’ll give the Involution clips a listen. I also seem to recall a video I saw of you reciting from a large room in an old house of some sort. It was some time ago I saw that. It might have been an interview. Perhaps, like me, Prunella needed an extra cup of coffee to get the noggin primed.

      Prunella Scales – well, there’s a lovely name to remember, anyway!

      1. philipparees says:

        Since your comment I have re-listened to the short clips, and wonder whether I should put the whole up on You Tube! I could get the added sound effects turned down. Worth thinking about! Your review has re-enlivened the old woman! You have no idea how much. I suspect the video was the interview in front of my fire with a lovely Richard Tomlinson, who did it for Somerset radio but I don’t think it went out.

        1. Joe Linker says:

          Have listened to clips. I don’t know. “Involution” much longer work. They used to read Ulysses on public radio over the Bloomsday weekend here, various readers coming in for different sections. Great fun. You could tune in anytime, guess where they might be. I think a roll out in parts or segments preferable to an all at once, long video. I didn’t notice a problem with sound effects. You’ve a lovely voice.

  6. philipparees says:

    I gave you reason perhaps to misunderstand. I meant putting up the whole of Yucatan ( from which those short clips were taken) on YouTube. It runs a little over an hour. Involution another fish entirely! I would like to make a master tape of it all from which bits and music could be extracted as and when. Have invited some preliminary readings from a lovely voice ( male). This is very non pc but overall a male voice is easier on the ear over a long period, although on the telephone I am invariably mistaken for my husband, and I come a lot cheaper!

    1. Joe Linker says:

      I guess the original cast of voices is limited to that first, abridged edition? What about an audio book? People on the phone think my name is Joel Inker. Hello, Joel? Joel? One long drawn out syllable, beginning bass and ending treble, like a swell that never breaks into a wave. I was thinking it might make for a good pen name. If I had anything penned that needed one. I just Googled it, Joel Inker, and only 7 results, not bad, at least fairly original, but one of the results was to a post on my own blog. I had forgotten I have already made reference to Joel Inker on the blog. I’m repeating myself. Who, boy. Not sure about the male voice for the whole. A female voice, one that can mimic the other voices. Or give the text to an acting workshop, see if they’ll produce it in dramatic form. All kinds of possibilities, good problems to try to solve.

  7. johndockus says:

    This author, poet and thinker Philippa Rees is remarkable, just what I need right now. I’m stuck like a fly in a bottle in my own thinking. It’s reflected in my own work, which is dark and grotesque, deformed, trapped in satirical casings, out of which I’m trying to find my way. I look a little ridiculous, lowly and perverse, in comparison, definitely an amateur. I listened to the first part of the interview with her on her blog about her book “Involution”. At points she leaves the interviewers speechless and embarrassed. She has to pick up the thread and continue speaking in the awkward lulls. I don’t think I’d be any better in her presence. I wonder if this is a common experience for her. Some of her insights lead one not at all to a chit-chattiness but to a reverential silence, not only of her talent and peculiar genius, but of the nature of reality to which the mind’s eye is opened in awe. I love the metaphor she uses regarding her work that it’s like the scaffolding around a cathedral. Just reading short excerpts of her work, it’s immediately clear – her devotion, the rigorousness of thought and depth of feeling, the craft, all integrated – that it’s the work of a lifetime.

    I’ve also dipped in and out of some of your posts, Joe Linker. What a joy. It’s intelligence manifested and breathing with a sense of play. Really stimulating stuff because of the inventiveness and versatility you display, the experimental variety, as well as your sincere appreciation of others. Your blog is a wonderful discovery for me.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks, John, for reading and taking time to comment. Glad you’ve discovered Philippa and find her motivating. It seems one effective kind of blog is one that is a work in progress, that is always evolving as writers find what to say in the process of writing (or drawing or doodling, whatever). Of course that process might result in disappointments, but if it’s organic and alive and original it’s probably going to be engaging. And more, writers might spend more time on how to say something; maybe that’s because what’s being said has already been said somewhere. Avoid Quests for perfect.

  8. calamitymay says:

    I’m just now finishing a 4.5 year long project, and very much look forward to Involution. To read it at a pace and place of my choosing would be ideal. But, long travels are a new norm…Philippa, experiencing an audio book that you produce, would, no doubt, add to its artfulness.

    Thank you Joe Linker for this thoughtful and compelling review.

    1. philipparees says:

      I have just recorded the whole of the poetic narrative of Involution. It will come out as soon as I can get some editing refinements introduced. Thank you for endorsing the wisdom of this. I also have just listened to a recording of Yucatan , read by a group of actors, and hope to put that out too.Watch this space (or befriend on Facebook if you lurk there and news will reach you!

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