An 80th birthday party causes no end of trouble in Barney Norris’s latest novel

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

‘People live in the space between the realities of their lives and the hopes they have for them,’ muses the octogenarian Robert at the start of Turning for Home, helpfully establishing the novel’s major theme. Little ventriloquised cogitations like this cover Barney Norris’s second novel like fingerprints, giving the game away.

Robert is a newly widowed retired civil servant, who, after a life of patriarchal and political responsibilities, is haunted by his newfound obsolescence. This ghost also haunts the novel’s other protagonist, Robert’s 25-year-old granddaughter Kate; a year lost to anorexia has left her estranged from a life that has only just begun (‘I would look at my phone and see only the echoes of the life I’d lost’).

Turning for Home unfolds over the day of Robert’s 80th birthday party — a family affair neither character looks forward to. Robert misses his wife; Kate dreads the familiar chill of her mother. In alternating monologues, each tries and tries again to tell a life story that will satisfy the incompatible desires to tell the truth and to flatter the teller. Can one succeed, the novel asks, or will one tear oneself apart in the struggle?

Turning for Home shows some glimmers of greatness. Kate’s anorexia and slow convalescence are carefully and sensitively handled, and Norris is often an astute psychologist. However, for a novel written by a playwright, there is strangely scant attention paid to voice; separated, in Kate’s words, by ‘too much life’, Robert and his granddaughter sound surprisingly alike (which is to say, like a sermonising writer in search of bons mots).

More troublesome still, Norris has an obsession with order — one which, like most, creates a lot of disarray. During his career, we learn, Robert played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process. By the time Kate was born the Troubles were drawing to a close, but that’s not to say that she hasn’t had ‘troubles’ of her own. This is a conceit from which Norris is determined to get rich returns; and as the novel progresses things become overly schematic — Kate’s personal traumas becoming an allegory for the political traumas of Robert’s generation. ‘Your troubles come with you wherever you travel, and in the end… peace has to be made.’ Kate mimes the words, but the voice is unmistakably the author’s.

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