Book review: So-called miracles

Norah Jane And Company by Ellen Gilchrist, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
Norah Jane, a recurring character in Gilchrist's fictional world, was last encountered in her short stories The Age of Miracles. Now, at 29, Norah Jane is mother of two daughters - born as twins but conceived by separate fathers to one of whom, the generous and loving Freddie Harwood, she is married. Her life has been tough (a lonely childhood, a complicated love life) but now things are looking good: she will study singing, go to university, and she's pregnant again. Then a toddler from next door strays through the garden gate and falls into their pool. Norah Jane rushes out in time to save it, but to her dismay the boyfriend of the toddler's mother is none other than the natural father of Norah Jane's other twin daughter, Lydia. Desperate to avoid a confrontation, Norah Jane and Freddie decide to move.

This is not a comfortable sequential narrative, however. Gilchrist switches points of view, telling a string of linked stories all of which touch Norah Jane and her family in some way. A friend's throat is slit in a hotel room. Freddie's bookshop is bombed. A camping trip almost proves fatal for Freddie and the children.

To Norah Jane these are senseless random disasters, though the reader is allowed to see the cause and effect at work. For Gilchrist believes - and wants us to believe - that "there's a lot more going on than we are able to acknowledge", that so-called miracles are "A tear in the cover , a glimpse of a wild, or perhaps exquisitely orderly, reality that is lost to us most of the time". Is there a greater power at work? Most of us are a little fuzzy on this and Gilchrist is not unhappy with this universal imprecision. But when, in a moment of magic realism, Leonardo da Vinci visits Nieman, the notorious film critic who is Norah Jane and Freddie's best friend and is now preparing to embrace a new career in biochemistry, the episode seems almost credible - by then we too realise that "We think we're so hot with our five senses but we know nothing really. Ninety-nine per cent of what's going on escapes us ... We are so wonderful in our egos, dressed out in all our ignorance and bliss. "

Through the kaleidoscope of events in this exhilarating and imaginative novel, Norah Jane somehow hangs on to her philosophy of cosmic optimism: "The earth was not an evil place. Murder and pain and evil did not rule the earth. Children do, and loving them and watching them and listening to them grow." Gilchrist consistently plays to her strengths as a short storyteller. The people who briefly touch on Norah Jane's life are portrayed with such intimacy that we long for more than that swift glimpse of them before they pass out of range again.