The Roundabout Man is the first of Clare Morrall’s novels which I have read. I have been interested in her work for quite some time now, and selected this novel as my first taste of it due to the wonderful quirkiness of its blurb. The Roundabout Man is Morrall’s fifth book, and was first published in 2012.
Of Morrall’s main protagonist, the Literary Review writes ‘Quinn is quietly fascinating… his fumblings toward an understanding that can only ever be partial are brilliantly achieved.’ The Sunday Times agrees, stating that: ‘Morrall writes with poise and delicacy, and her subjects are delightful offbeat.’
Quinn Smith lives in an old caravan in the middle of an overgrown roundabout, somewhere in England. He shares his name with a young boy in a ‘world-famous series of children’s books’, and people often think he is joking when he introduces himself. However, he was the inspiration for the fictional Quinn, a series which was written by his mother, and featured his older, bossy triplet sisters, Zuleika, Fleur, and Hetty. It is ‘this legacy which he has successfully run away from – until now.’ In the novel, Quinn is forced to face the ghosts of his past, and the ‘uncomfortable truths it holds about himself, his sisters and, most of all, his mother.’
The Roundabout Man opens in rather a beguiling manner. Morrall writes using sixty-year-old Quinn’s voice, which I believed in immediately: ‘I exist in the eye of the storm, the calm in the centre of a perpetual hurricane of cars and lorries heading for the M6, the north and Scotland, or south to Penzance and Land’s End. I sometimes wonder if they don’t go on the motorway at all, that I hear the same vehicles circling endlessly, a kind of multiple Flying Dutchman, doomed to travel for ever. I don’t regret for one minute that I am no longer one of them.’ He goes on to state: ‘I’ve anchored myself in the middle of one of the few patches of land where no one goes, among well-established birches, ashes, sycamores, surrounded myself with rotten and claimed sanctuary.’
At the outset of the novel, Quinn is visited by a young journalist named Lorna, who is keen to interview him for a piece in the local newspaper. She asks him if he minds living alone, and his answer, whilst guarded, is a resounding no. He does sometimes let himself wonder why, at his age, he is living as he is, feeling ‘far too old for extended camping holidays’. His way of life is particularly difficult when the weather becomes cold: ‘When the frost clutches everything around’, he allows himself to ‘consider the merits of carpets and central heating’. However, Quinn is able to see ‘compensations’ in the beauty of the nature all around him.
Morrall’s prose is nicely wrought, and there is an almost unusual quality to its phrases and what it touches upon. I really liked the structure of the novel; each relatively short chapter is made up of several sections, which either note the events of Quinn’s present, or regress back to the past. He reveals little about himself in person, but the reader learns a lot about him due to Morrall’s arrangement of plot. Of his childhood home, he says: ‘Our house, The Cedars, was an Arts and Crafts house, bought by my parents when they first married, paid for with the money they’d inherited from their parents, both sets of whom had died by then. It was exactly the right setting for a famous writer.’
We learn of his mother, Larissa, who comes across as cold and lacking maternal instincts. She reminded me somewhat of Enid Blyton, putting on the airs of a darling, beloved mother during photoshoots with prestigious newspapers and magazines, but showing little affection to her children, and the family’s string of foster children, in private. Of these photography sessions, Quinn warmly reminisces that he loved them, allowing him ‘the rare opportunity to sit on my mother’s lap.’ The memories of all four siblings have become confused with certain scenes in their mother’s books, and they muse upon what is real, and what is fabricated, and how one can possibly tell when they all remember different things.
Quinn’s voice feels candid throughout, and one cannot help but feel for him, particularly in those sections where he writes about his often lonely childhood. Their upbringing has had a knock-on effect into their present: ‘Zuleika, Fleur and I had kept in touch, but we were not a close family. Our childhood had been so public that my sisters had leaped away from The Cedars with enthusiasm and reinvented themselves, coming back less and less often until they stopped altogether.’ Hetty is rarely in touch with her sisters, and never with her brother. Of his sisters in adulthood, Quinn muses: ‘It was hard to believe the they were all the same age, that they used to impersonate each other, do everything together, think identical thoughts. They had been a three-headed creature in my childhood, but at some point in the lat few years, a phantom surgeon had performed an operation, separated the organs, made them into three people.’
I found The Roundabout Man immersive, peopled with a cast of three-dimensional characters. Morrall has struck a great balance between character focus and plot. The family dynamics are fascinating, and filled with tiny, observant details. This novel, full of heart, seems to be rather an underrated one, but its unusual story has a lot of depth, and is well worth a read.