Splashes of Colour
322 pages, $23.95
book’s epigraph, from Peter Pan, describes Neverland
as “always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes
of colour here and there.” So we come to Clare Morrall’s novel
expecting characters who are either lost, haven’t grown up,
or are looking for a Wendy-mother to take care of them. But
the novel is much better and more complex than that crabbed
little statement, and the “astonishing splashes of colour”
refer more appropriately to the central character’s unusual
experiences of color.
got her nickname by coming whenever her brothers called the
cat—is a reviewer of children’s books, living in Birmingham,
England, in a crowded ramshackle apartment next door to the
cleanly minimalist one of her husband, James. Kitty’s painter
father still works in the old family home a few blocks away,
and Kitty’s much older brothers—two married, two not—also
live nearby. There’s a long-dead sister Dinah (the oldest
of the brood), and a mother who died when Kitty was barely
3. The absence of her mother, and any evidence of her mother,
haunts Kitty, as do her brothers’ oddly contradictory memories.
The actual plot of the novel follows Kitty as she slowly falls
apart after the death of her baby and learning that she can
never have another.
Now this is all grim stuff, and a bit soap opera at that.
So what makes this novel special? First, it has terrific details.
The book opens with narrator Kitty standing outside an elementary
school because “to me, waiting for children to come out of
school is a quintessential act of motherhood.” Her weirdly
intriguing perceptions often relate to color. Of her unorthodox
marriage to James, an obsessive-compulsive with family problems
of his own, she notices that at good moments “his white slows
down so that all the yellows and blues and reds in his spectrum
meet mine and merge, complementing the frenetic whirls of
colour inside me. We look at each other and we match. Things
can only work if we can share the colours out properly, evenly,
Kitty is very acute as she watches herself losing it: “I don’t
feel grown-up any more. Somehow since my move, my marriage,
my loss, I seem to have gone backwards. I feel as if I’m the
pet again, little, without forward drive, dependent on others.
I find myself wanting to ask permission before I do anything.”
Her distracted mind skitters. In the midst of questioning
brother Jake about Dinah, Kitty looks “out of the window at
the mulberry trees where the fruit was ripening into a deep
black-red. We should keep silkworms, I thought: there are
enough mulberry leaves to feed an army of them. We could make
a fortune. ‘Why did she go?’ I asked.”
But it is the three-dimensionality of the characters, particularly
the men, that makes this novel truly remarkable. Although
Kitty calls her brothers and her father “lost boys,” and although
James has some severe life challenges, these men aren’t the
inadequate male trash of so many women’s novels. Every last
one of them behaves on occasion with love, decency, and sensitivity,
beginning with their wonderful bringing up of Kitty. Married
brother Adrian may have become a tiresomely successful writer
who leaves Kitty out altogether from a thinly disguised novelistic
memoir, but he tries to look after her and ultimately assures
that she will not be cut off forever from her beloved nieces.
Violinist Jake may refuse to play seriously—he’ll do nothing
but busk—because he’s married to a bank manager, but he willingly
gets up in the middle of the night to protect Kitty from her
own folly. Trucker Martin (the slow one in the family) is
an emotionally dependable rock, and ultimately Kitty’s salvation.
Edgy mathematical genius Paul may be meanly spiteful, but
he also helps Kitty find what she needs. Ultimately we recognize,
along with Kitty, that her brothers have also suffered the
severe loss of a mother and a sister. Even gigantically self-aggrandizing
Guy, the father, is a complex man—although clearly stupid
or short-sighted at times and preoccupied with his art, he
is also intensely responsible in his own idiosyncratic way
and deeply caring.
But it is with James and Kitty that we best see how the characters
simultaneously support and undermine each other, just as real
grownups do in real life. James is completely phobic about
flying, but he grits his teeth and accepts a short job in
New York in order to get Kitty out of the country. Just prior
to takeoff, however, he simply can’t continue, and it is Kitty
who gets them both off the plane. But it is the two together
who conspire to cover this failure—James does the job by computer—by
holing up in London for the duration of their supposed trip.
James will do anything he can to help Kitty, including deal
with her difficult father: “James and my father are like jigsaw
pieces from two different puzzles. They look as if they’ll
fit together, but they don’t.” But he can’t talk with Kitty
about the lost baby or about their lost “future.”
The men in Kitty’s life tend to focus on protecting her, which
is not as condescending as it sounds. But protection eventually
becomes dangerous, especially when Kitty involves herself
with Megan, a wonderfully complicated 8-year-old and a very
genuinely, very seriously “lost” child.
This unusual first novel—Morrall is in her 50s, so take heart,
all you writers—brilliantly portrays a multitude of lives
lived “differently,” either just, or completely, outside the
ordinary. And because mostly these lives work for the adults—and
they are adults—living them, they ultimately force us to broaden
the boundaries of what we consider normal.