Turning for Home by Barney Norris review – anorexia and IRA secrets

The second novel from a rising literary star is a tale of public and private reconciliations

This second novel by the highly accomplished Barney Norris, who made his name as a playwright before publishing fiction, begins as a book about the peace process in Ireland, memory, guilt and confession. It moves, gradually, towards a terrifying account of anorexia. And by the end one feels that perhaps it has been most of all a study of the relationship between a grandfather and granddaughter. I’m not sure it entirely holds together, but the disjunctions are part of what makes this courageous piece of work so memorable, strange and sad.

It’s set, for the most part, on a single day somewhere in the Hampshire countryside, at the home of the ageing Robert. The family is gathering for his birthday, as it has gathered each May for the last 40 years. But at 80, recently widowed, Robert hasn’t much heart for celebration. He is wondering how he can get through the day without Hattie, the love of his life. And he finds himself willingly recalled to his former role as an intermediary in the negotiations that followed the Enniskillen bombing and led towards the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. It’s a hard day, too, for his granddaughter Kate, who must speak to her mother for the first time in years. At 25, vulnerable but surviving, she is continually conscious of how close she came to starving herself to death.

Norris’s first novel, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, won huge acclaim. Its five characters were exhilaratingly various: an army wife, a security guard, a teenage boy, a widower and a rough-spoken flower seller with a sideline in drugs – their complex lives all converging at the same moment in Salisbury, with the cathedral spire rising above them. Norris’s great achievement was to make their voices work in harmony, like notes sounding together in a chord. Turning for Home again features alternating monologues. Robert and Kate narrate the same day from their separate vantage points, longing to understand and support each other but called away into their private preoccupations.

The two voices are similar in tone, so that the chord they make is less surprising than in the first novel. This book is also a looser whole, and I missed the distinctive sense of place that shaped Five Rivers. But here again is the wistful lyricism that distinguishes all Norris’s work, the philosophical intelligence, and the acute, demotic empathy with people of diverse ages and in different kinds of trouble.

Few young novelists have been so attentive to old age, yet considering our ageing population, the giant unsolved problem of how to care for the elderly and the complicated pain of seeing our relatives struggle on, the need for literary engagement feels urgent. In his 2014 play Visitors, Norris thought his way into the lives of an elderly couple, still in love despite their failing bodies and signs of dementia. In Turning for Home, Robert attests to the power of his long marriage in ways so moving that one wonders why as a society we are so much more eager to hear about young love than old.

Robert is thinking about war as well as love. News has broken that transcripts are going to be released from the Boston tapes – the interviews with loyalist and IRA fighters recorded by researchers at Boston College in the early 2000s on the understanding that they would not be made public until after the death of the interviewees. Those who spoke knew it was dangerous to put their stories on record, whatever guarantees were given. So why did they do it? Robert thinks of those “old battered murderers speaking into their microphones” and asks why so many of us feel compelled to speak out the truth of our lives. Answers come from different strands of the novel: we are driven by shame and guilt, by loneliness and the urge to share what we know. Robert suggests that it’s a matter of “wanting the days of your life, and the acts of your life, to be known to have happened”.

What we are reading is Robert’s narration of his own story, analogous to the Boston interviews and shaped by the same anxieties. Though she is very quiet, Kate, too, needs the acts of her life to be known. The politics of the IRA testimonies are held in tense juxtaposition with private stories of family and illness.

The heart of the book, the part no reader will forget, is Kate’s account of her anorexia. Only a very brave writer would take on the voice of a woman remembering what she felt as she refused all nutrition. The result is entirely convincing and horrifying. The reader is left railing at a care system that seems powerless to help Kate, and brought up against distressing questions of medical ethics. Her father pleads day after day for her to be sectioned, which is the only way she can be hospitalised against her will. It’s clear that had he not been there, or had he not persisted, she would have been lost.

Kate’s monologue is its own kind of confession, deeply concerned with the currents of self-incrimination and self-punishment in which she has been caught. As she tries now to open new kinds of relationship with her estranged mother, and with the two men she loves, Robert watches her across the lawn. “There ought to be truth and reconciliation,” he reflects, “in every stratum of the lives people live.”

The book’s many parts are explicitly linked by this idea. More than direct statements, though, it is incidental moments that remain vivid in memory once the book is closed, small glimpses of unsuspected inner lives. Such scenes carry with them Norris’s plea that we take more notice of the people around us. The possibility of compassion gives the novel a restorative arc that rises up and over its tragedies. There is Aunt Laura, who “expresses love like a woodpecker, battering away”, covering her sadness with fuss about sandwiches; there is the old IRA man turning a whisky glass in his nervous hands; most of all there is a father in agony, cradling his grown-up daughter in a hospital chair, playing out a terrible modern pietà.

• Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland is published by Thames & Hudson. Turning for Home is published by Doubleday. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Alexandra Harris

The GuardianTramp

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