The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells by Virginia MacGregor
13th Jan 2016
The events of Virginia MacGregor’s second novel, The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells focus on the life-changing homecoming of the titular protagonist, whose disappearance turned her family’s life upside down.
Ella, Norah’s 15 year old daughter, has been relentlessly campaigning to find her mother since her unexpected departure when she was just eight years old. Her most recent attempt involving finding a virtual support network as @findingmum on Twitter.
She still idolises the free-spirited Norah, and is fiercely protective of her little sister, Willa. But, to add to Ella’s pain, six year old Willa believes that their stepmother, Fay, is their biological mother. Fay has, physically and emotionally, put everything back together at 77 Willoughby Street, a house literally falling apart for everyone except Ella whose life is driven by the aching desire to be reunited with her mother.
But when Ella’s wish comes true on a Bank Holiday Friday, her reaction is a shock to everyone, including herself.
The pulling apart, piecing together and pulling apart again of the characters’ lives is revealed through the distinctive narratives of: Ella, Willa, their father Adam, Fay and Norah herself. Through these interconnected individual perspectives an addictive plot begins develop as the family relive the past, and consider and uncertain future.
The fact that MacGregor hasn’t relied on the ‘absent father’ trope challenges the ideas about the inevitability of women carrying the load of family life which permeate our culture and media. Their voices embody: the emotional intensity of adolescence; the optimism and sense of fairness of childhood; and the disillusionment of adults who have abandoned their desires and ideals over time.
Thankfully, MacGregor never reduces her characters to the shorthand of a life stage. Instead she captures each of their complexities with richness and depth. The true protagonist is the endearing and insightful Willa who, ironically, others believe must be shielded from reality. But she is the one with the wisdom and intuition to discover the truth about people and situations.
Willa’s obsession with Fantastic Mr Fox frames the plot, highlighting Adam’s need to redeem himself as a father and husband. Her fixation with the book also emphasises a sense of a longing for community that is deep-rooted, not just in innocent children like her, but in all of us.
The fact that MacGregor hasn’t relied on the ‘absent father’ trope challenges the ideas about the inevitability of women carrying the load of family life which permeate our culture and media. Through the experiences of her characters, particularly Norah and Fay, she highlights how women’s choices and identity can be limited by patriarchal assumptions and structures.
MacGregor conveys warmth and empathy for these flawed, broken and often selfish individuals whose humanity readers will undoubtedly relate to. She uses realistic-sounding dialogue, and a vibrant and eccentric cast of secondary characters who propel the action forward. (That said, in the last quarter of the novel the sheer volume of action seems a little unnecessary.)
Coupled with an compelling plot, the psychological journeys of the characters are the true beauty of this novel and ensure its unputdownability.