Closed Doors by Lisa O’Donnell

27th Aug 2013

closed doors
You’d be forgiven for opening the first page of Lisa O’Donnell’s latest novel with higher than average hopes: she did, after all, win the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for her first novel.

Her second novel, Closed Doors, is set in the early eighties and told through the eyes of eleven-year-old Michael Murray, who lives with his Ma, Da and Granny on the Isle of Bute just off the western coast of Scotland near Glasgow.

Everyone knows everyone else’s business on Bute, and if the residents could convert gossiping into jobs they’d be able to solve the unemployment crisis hitting the island several times over.

His Da mostly swears about Thatcher, but his Ma and Granny like to talk about the town as much as the rest of them. As his Granny says, “little pitchers have big ears,” so Michael is frequently sent from the room when the more salacious gossip begins.

He resorts to listening at closed doors, but when something terrible happens to his Ma he finds out more than he should. From that day everything changes, and his family becomes the victims of gossip’s tendency to run away with itself beyond all reason.

A truly heart-warming and exquisitely well-written story about communities, about growing up, and most of all about families sticking together.The eighties setting is so brilliantly lifelike that, despite the book’s relatively short length, there’s ample time for the readers to feel like they become neighbours in amongst the action, and I found myself revelling in the culture and ideals of the time.

In fact, the length is very much in the novel’s favour: O’Donnell is clearly adept at getting down to business, and the plot rattles forward without a wasted word in sight.

The choice to tell the story through Michael’s childlike eyes – while similar to techniques employed in The Death Of Bees – is no gimmick: he simplifies the situation in ways adults just can’t, using a logic they’ve long since grown out of.

It means O’Donnell can weave her magic in the young Michael’s brilliantly simple, spot-on voice, using a child’s perspective to point out the absurdity of public opinion which the grownups have long since stopped noticing.

His own dramas amongst the neighbourhood’s children are equally as engaging as that of the adults. Dirty Alice has lost her Mum and is dragging herself up, Paul shares his stash of pornographic magazines which he hides in the Woody, and Fiona pulls her knickers down for boys in the bushes, but these play-attempts at growing up are completely outshone by their own involvements in fixing their parents’ issues.

Although their parents try to shield them from serious matters (Michael’s Ma’s attacker is merely called a ‘flasher’), the children are unafraid to discuss each others’ home lives with refreshing frankness, and their own little community has much to learn about loss of innocence and growing up.

O’Donnell is incredibly talented at making the ordinary extraordinary. Michael’s family is refreshingly familiar, and while O’Donnell doesn’t twist her prose up in knots trying to be clever, there are still moments where her choice of phrasing is so unusually honest it took my breath away.

It’s not often I read a book in which I genuinely can’t think of a thing to be done differently, even less often do I so ardently wish I’d written a book myself.

Closed Doors is a masterclass in how it’s done, completely living up to every expectation of a Commonwealth Book Prize winner, and exceeding a few more for good measure.

Closed Doors was published by William Heinemann in July.