“But some days when I get this weather inside me it seems no matter how I want to be good, sooner or later I’m going to let off on somebody.”
Shadowboxer is the story of Jade Barrera, a seventeen year old mixed martial artist with anger issues who wants to fight professionally. Her story intersects that of a Burmese girl, Mya, in Thailand who has the ability to walk from our world into a deeper world that lies alongside and intertwined with ours. I’m not going to try to encapsulate the plot (although it includes drug smuggling and child slavery as well as the world of Mixed Martial Arts) but rather discuss some elements that really stood out for me.
This is a novel that excels at voice. Sullivan’s writing shines. She deftly switches from Jade’s first person narrative to Mya’s third person narrative in a way that feels completely natural within the text. What I found most impressive is how each voice is entirely distinct; leaving aside the first/third person differentiation, there is no way a reader can mistake Mya’s sensitive and observant point of view for Jade’s fierce personality because the language and the kinds of things each character notices, describes, and remarks on fit each girl’s psychology.
Jade fights her own demons and her tough, uncompromising voice and her mistakes and imperfections and her constant pushing of herself to figure things out and do better just make me love her as a protagonist. Her interactions with other characters are consistently fitting to her blunt and yet genuine manner. Mya’s situation is stark and frightening but her compassion and courage, and her intelligence and ability, keep her moving and striving. The language flows through the narrative in a way that reveals how each point of view character acts and reacts within the world.
The secondary characters also stand out. It’s not a particularly long novel and yet the other characters remain vividly drawn and easy to tell apart. The dialogue is just so good. It has the the rhythm of real exchanges and there is always just the right amount of it to tell the reader what she needs to know. I can read and re-read certain of the dialogue scenes because they’re so well done, so dexterous, so agile as they unfold impressive amounts of information and emotion.
How much do I love how Sullivan depicts serious training and the drive to compete? How much do I love the intense, sweaty, physical fight scenes? There are no training montages here, no smooth moves or easy grasp of competence. Jade trains hard in a way I found tremendously believable. Furthermore Sullivan really knows how to fight and therefore her fight scenes read like they’re actual Mixed Martial Arts bouts taking place rather than as if they are literary fight scenes written with Hollywood-style choreography. I’ve rarely read a book in which the fighting felt as real.
In four fascinating essays Sullivan writes about how martial arts are depicted on screen and in novels, and how she wrote the fight scenes in Shadowboxer. You can find all four linked here, and I highly recommend them.