Astonishing Splashes of Colour

by Clare Morrall

Published by HarperCollins

336 pages, 2004




Against Odds

Reviewed by Molly Farrell


The Guardian recently branded author Clare Morrall a champion of "guerilla publishing." However, the 52-year-old music teacher from Birmingham, England hardly conjures images of a trooper storming the publishing industry. Without any rabble-rousing on her part, Morrall's first novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, elbowed major-label luminaries such as Martin Amis and J.M. Coetzee off the short list for last year's Man Booker prize. This critical nod garnered a contract for the writer with publishing behemoth HarperCollins, which released her novel in the United States this October. Morrall's against-the-odds success is even more remarkable considering her book was first published by a tiny local writers' group -- and that she had been writing novels for 20 years before anyone agreed to invest even a paltry sum on a writer who would almost instantly receive worldwide acclaim.

Morrall had already written four complete and unpublished novels when Astonishing Splashes of Colour, the intimately detailed story of a childless, motherless recluse on a quest to retrieve her family's memory, finally was accepted by Birmingham's Tindal Street Press. Over the decades she diligently penned stories of "odd" and "isolated" characters, as she describes them, between offering violin and piano lessons and raising her two daughters. Morrall says she received rejection letters from nearly every publishing house in Great Britain, and appealed to Tindal Street Press with Colour, "Frankly," she says, "because I thought I had a chance."

A few Birmingham writers who felt snubbed by the London-centric publishing industry started Tindal Street in 1999 with a lottery grant. Dwarfed by giants like Random House and Faber & Faber, homes of the other Booker notables, Tindal Street's nomination still managed to share the shortlist with Margaret Atwood and Monica Ali. At the time, Booker panel chairman and Oxford Professor John Carey responded to questions about the inclusion of first-time authors at the expense of literary giants by replying, "I am not glad that David has beaten Goliath, because the big names are the ones we feel gratitude towards. This year they did not produce the big books."

Astonishing Splashes of Colour can hardly be described as a "big book." Everything about the novel is modest; at 336 pages, it is substantial but unassuming. Its bare but piercing prose mirrors the quiet, smoldering emotions of its protagonist. Even her name, Kitty, is diminutive. The youngest child in a motherless family, Kitty has never fully grown up. She waits until well into adulthood to finally leave her father's house, and then quickly marries the man in the flat across the hall. She makes a living reviewing children's books from home, communicating more via answering machine than in person. Even James, her meticulous husband, remains within the tidy world of his own separate apartment, their marriage a loving yet chronically isolated friendship. "If it wasn't for me," Kitty laments, "he would be a wonderful husband." Kitty has never learned of the circumstances surrounding her mother's death, never spoken about the death of the only baby she had with James, and never found out why her only sister ran away before she was born. "I can't decide which is worse," she wonders, "not to have a mother, or to not have children. An empty space in both directions. No backwards, no forwards."

Kitty's naïve detective work is thwarted by the incongruity of each family member's memories. The reticence of her father and brothers leaves her trapped without a remembered past. Even the eldest, Adrian, a successful writer, cannot find the words to speak about Kitty's lost son. She explains, "He wouldn't say it. Nobody ever does. They come dangerously close, I'm ready for them, but then they don't. It's as if there's a big hole around it and everyone is afraid of falling in. They teeter on the edge briefly, then turn round and walk away."

Intensifying Kitty's isolation is her synaesthesia, the condition of seeing emotions in colors. Borrowing the book's title from a line in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, Morrall alludes to the way Kitty experiences the world in a kaleidoscope of messy brightness. The cracks in her ability to cope with her vivid solitude first become apparent when Kitty steals away her nieces to a production of Pan. Inside her personal Neverland, Kitty longs, like Peter Pan, for a memory of her mother; but unlike the Lost Boys, she was robbed of her opportunity to reciprocate that relationship and become a mother herself. Colour is a vigorous washing in the kind of incomplete grief that comes from loving something that you have no actual remembered experience of, like an absent mother or a child who never got to grow up.

Ironically, her brother Adrian's fictionalized memoir sparks the family's truth telling and finally unravels Kitty's paralyzing ignorance. Morrall's talent lies in nurturing an empathy with Kitty that survives her rapid mental deterioration. By the time Kitty half-deliberately commits some horrifying acts, the reader not only hopes she succeeds, but also supports her mad attempts to comfort herself. Kitty is a pathetic character, but her immense preoccupation with finding a firm familial place between her past and future is so well developed that it is not out of pity that we follow her struggle. The examination itself, though ultimately impossible to resolve, is gripping.

However, Colour proves frustrating when Morrall adds shocking twists to create momentum, unearthing extraordinary secrets. These unnecessary intrigues feel artificial and only serve to distract the reader from the novel's most compelling aspect, Morrall's exposition of ordinary relationships. If Morrall strengthened her narrative muscle she could approach a more confessional version of Carol Shields' Stone Diaries, or expand on the domestic intricacies of Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. "Mothers. Babies. Joined biologically by a cord," Kitty muses. "Once I was part of my mother, then I was not. Our separation should have been more gradual. Not sudden. It feels as if I was thrown away."

The unsettling reality that persists after reading such an intimate book, however, is how close it came to being relegated to oblivion. Imagine its carefully edited pages laying on a well-dusted shelf in Morrall's home, their author typing away while publishing houses search for the next exhaustively ambitious novel or fresh retelling of single girls' travails. Stories of mother loss, of a mundane character's development into a desperate monster or of a middle-aged music teacher's exquisite ruminations on memory, flop on the underpaid editorial assistant's floor. We can sing the praises of what independent publishers are left, but even their presence doesn't seem reassuring when the only recourse for good, neglected writing is the same panel that disastrously anointed D.B.C. Pierre's overwrought caricature, Vernon God Little, the Booker overall winner. They may have got it right in short-listing Clare Morrall, but how often do they get it wrong?

Morrall doesn't seem bothered by what her example might suggest about the relationship of good writing to good publishing. If bitterness had been her nature she probably would not have kept writing. True to form, she is already in the process of putting the finishing touches on her next novel, a project she started before the verdict on Colour had been rendered. This time, though, she's working with her very own agent. | November 2004


Molly Farrell is a journalist in Washington, D.C.