The Fragility of First Love in Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”

Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s novelette, “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow,” surrounds two teenage boys with peculiar bodies: Splinter, a boy made of glass, and Look, the narrator and titular boy without a shadow. Despite these extraordinary characteristics, and the media circus that follows Look in his childhood, both boys live uneventful lives under the watch of their overbearing parents.

The novelette won the prestigious Paul Harland Award for Best Dutch Story of the Fantastic in 2009, and was nominated for the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

According to Heuvelt, the story was written in a four-day rush, and this sense of urgency translates onto the page. “The Boy Who Casts No Shadow” reads like a confessional, written by a narrator who tries to depict himself as unreliable in order to avoid vulnerability, or revealing the depth of his feelings for Splinter.

Look is an anomaly. He doesn’t cast a shadow, he has no reflection, and he doesn’t appear in photographs. Artists have tried to capture his likeness, but none of the drawings of him look alike, and Look himself does not think that any of them suit him, though in truth he has never seen his own appearance. His invisibility to mirrors and cameras represents both his anxiety over not being properly seen by others, and his lack of a sense of self. By Look’s own admission, he has no dreams, no goals, and no imagination.

Unlike Look, Splinter’s condition appears to be genetic. His body is made entirely of glass, and at fourteen he is the longest-living member of anyone in his family who shares this trait. He has no nerves, and a single crack in his glass body could potentially kill him. Despite his fragility and the frankness with which he discusses his inevitable death, Splinter remains an optimist for much of the story; he hopes one day to join the Navy, and surrounds himself in fantasies and dreams for the future.

The atypical bodies of these two characters can be seen as a metaphor for the changes that the body undergoes during puberty, and  the sense teenagers have of their bodies as alien, foreign, or beyond their control.

The two boys become close friends because of the way in which their peculiarities interact. Splinter’s body acts as a mirror, and he says that this is the reason why most people do not like him—they see themselves, and all that they despise about themselves, in their reflections on his body. Look, however, doesn’t see his reflection—he only sees Splinter. While other characters project themselves and their insecurities onto Splinter, Look is able to see Splinter for who he is.

“The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” is a coming of age story. Both boys have strained relationships with their parents. While Look distances himself from his parents because of their aggressive championing and exaltation of his differences, Splinter’s mother and father are overly protective and, in their effort to delay the death of their son, prevent him from living. Splinter’s parents have never even hugged him, for fear of breaking their physically fragile child.

To escape their mundane lives, the two boys run away from home to Portugal for a weekend; Splinter looking for adventure, and Look searching for a direction in life. While in Portugal, their friendship blossoms into love. In one beautiful and tender passage, Look describes how, right before they kiss, he exhales and his breath fogs up Splinter’s lips, offering proof of Look’s existence. Just as Look is the only one who sees Splinter for who he is, Splinter is the only one who makes Look feel alive.

The story contains numerous allusions to Pinocchio, the most obvious parallel being found in Splinter. Pinocchio has a wooden body, and Splinter has a glass one. Pinocchio wants to be a real boy, while Splinter wishes he weren’t made of glass. And this allusion can be extended to Look as well. Look’s love affair with Splinter and Splinter’s subsequent death change Look; he realizes that he is capable of loving and being loved by another person. In the end, Splinter brings Look to life and gives him the courage to dream.

“The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” is a heartbreaking and powerful story, one that is far more complex and nuanced than it initially appears. It is ultimately about the fragility of first love—how another person can change one’s life, and how easily one’s heart can be broken.

-Contributed by Alex De Pompa

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