Clare Morrall's third published novel opens with seven-year-old Jessica Fontaine roller-skating, fast as she can, along a long, narrow oak-floored room in the crumbling country house her parents bought on a whim. Moments before she crashes into a closed door, she realises that she doesn't know how to stop.
As the story progresses, we learn that stopping isn't the only thing Jessica doesn't know how to do. She's a solitary child, happiest in her own company, who finds people – including her sociable younger sister, Harriet, and their mother, Connie, who's always busy organising treasure hunts, renovations, parties – perplexing; the way they interact with other human beings surprises. She doesn't know how she should play with other children, or relate to anyone. Or how people bear to be in such close proximity to each other. At her mother's party, she creeps round the house, watching. "Everyone was squeezed so tightly together. How could they breathe with so little space around them?"
We don't find this out all at once. After introducing her main protagonist, Morrall fast-forwards and passes the narrator's baton to Jessica. Now in her forties, she's a divorced part-time librarian, occasional pianist and the mother of Joel, a twentysomething computer games whizz and businessman. Joel has not only inexplicably failed to leave home but also, like his mother, doesn't appear to know how to do things that seem obvious to other people – like washing up or cooking his own dinner. While Jessica is puzzling over how to get her son to pull his weight, her unpredictable ex-husband Andrew, once a brilliant musician, now a street-cleaner, emails her after a hiatus of seven years. He needs to see her.
What follows is a story of self-discovery, of difficult family relationships and redemptive friendships that slips between past and present and unfolds not so much a coming-of-age as a coming-to-understanding tale. It's familiar territory for the author: her misfit central character struggling to make her way in a world where she doesn't feel she belongs. Like Kitty in Morrall's Man Booker-shortlisted Astonishing Splashes of Colour, there is something Jessica doesn't know about herself that, had she known, would have explained – and, perhaps, mitigated – her alienation.
The novel is an enjoyable, engrossing read. Morrall plots deftly: her novel is well-paced, the story spread across its pages evenly as melted cheese on toast. There were only a couple of moments when not-quite-loose-ends were too neatly tied to keep disbelief suspended.
The characters, too, mostly feel real. I was slightly discombobulated by the way that the only ones who have a normal life (whatever that might be) are Jessica's best friend Mary and her family, but ended up questioning whether it was the author's intention to have them function as a kind of control group, or merely Jessica's take on them and her own family. I'm not sure.
Jessica herself, with her sense of bewilderment so extreme that she has to ask Harriet how you can tell if someone's handsome, is a lovely creation, her deep-felt and fluent musicality counterpointing her awkwardness beautifully. And, most of us, I suspect, know an Andrew, that individual whose shining talent or intellect fails to find a productive outlet, burns out or brings him no joy. He is the person who could have achieved so much but doesn't, not because he opts for an easy, comfortable life but because, whatever he does, satisfaction and contentment elude him.
Lisa Gee's 'Stage Mum' will be published by Hutchinson in JulyReuse content