July 26, 2014
My review of Lisa O’Donnell’s terrific new novel is published in the 7/27/14 issue of the New York Times Book Review.
Lisa O’Donnell’s dazzling new novel transports us to small-town Scotland and into the increasingly volatile mind of an 11-year-old boy. Michael Murray, who narrates the book, lives with his parents and grandmother in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. As in most small towns, everybody seems to know everybody else’s business. Here gossip is something more than a spectator sport.
O’Donnell won the prestigious Commonwealth Book Prize last year with “The Death of Bees,” a first novel that deftly balanced the morbid with the mundane, a talent that remains on full display here. “Closed Doors” begins in early 1982, the time of Margaret Thatcher’s reign and of Britain’s undeclared war over some other remote islands. Like Roddy Doyle’s “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha” and “Black Swan Green,” by David Mitchell, O’Donnell’s novel effectively evokes the carefree joys of adolescence as well as all of its terrors, real and imagined.
When Michael’s mother comes home crying one night, the rest of the family attempts to shield him from the awful truth of what has happened, telling him that a flasher has harassed her in the local park. Michael doesn’t understand what that means: “In the morning I am full of questions. Granny folds laundry and Da looks tired. I ask him about flashing. He doesn’t want to tell me. Neither does Granny. They want me to disappear with my soccer ball, but I don’t. My ma has been flashed at and I want to know what it means. She’s in the hospital with a sore face and a limp. She fell hard because of this flasher. I have a right to know what’s going on and why I’m to tell everyone she fell on the stairs.”
O’Donnell perfectly navigates the distance between what Michael understands and what her readers do. The boy soon overhears some conversations he’s not meant to and comes to suspect that his mother was subjected to something much worse than the bad behavior of an exhibitionist. Since, out of anxiety or humiliation, she has refused to go to the police, the neighbors assume she’s been battered by her husband. Although Michael knows it’s not true, he’s forbidden to tell anyone.
The whirlpool of secrets within secrets and lies within lies comes close to tearing Michael’s family apart, especially after the attacker strikes again and more of the awful truth emerges. Had the Murrays gone to the police in the first place, they might have saved a neighbor from harm. Michael, pulled in many directions at once, carries the burden of witnessing his mother’s anxiety attacks, hearing his parents arguing and protecting what remains of his family’s reputation — all while dealing with the ordinary challenges that go with turning 12 and starting to take an interest in girls. His confusion is palpable, even tragic. “It’s terrible to know too many things about people,” he realizes. “It makes you feel like a liar because you have to act like you know nothing at all when the truth is you know everything there is to know.”
O’Donnell’s great talent is most apparent in her depiction of the gap between Michael’s thoughts and his actions. He gets in fights and acts up at school, but never comes to see that throwing tantrums is his response to the tensions he can’t deal with at home. It’s not revealing too much to say that O’Donnell wraps up “Closed Doors” in a way that feels both unpredictable and inevitable. It’s a fitting end to a moving story that stakes a lasting, and disturbing, emotional claim on her readers.