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Beyond Normal
By Margaret Black

Astonishing Splashes of Colour
By Clare Morrall
HarperCollins, 322 pages, $23.95

This 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.

Kitty—who 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, between us.”

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.

 


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