Sunday 15 December 2019

Books: The Astonishing Return of Virginia MacGregor

Fiction: The Atonishing Return of Norah Wells, Virginia MacGregor, Little Brown, hdbk, 465 pages, €14.99

Families: MacGregor slides easily into the shoes of each character
Families: MacGregor slides easily into the shoes of each character
The Atonishing Return of Norah Wells, Virginia MacGregor

What happens to 'The Mother Who Stayed' when 'The Mother Who Left' comes back? That's the conundrum concocted by Virginia MacGregor in her second novel, The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells, which hits shelves here next week.

Two years after making her staggering debut with What Milo Saw, which was lauded by critics as witty, warm and wise, the British author is back with another insightful look at modern family life.

While her breakout book centred on a young boy intent on rescuing his grandmother from a nursing home, this time, MacGregor tells the story of 30-something musician Norah Wells, who walks out of the home she shares with her husband and their two young daughters one morning, and never looks back.

Until, that is, she does - reappearing on the doorstep six years later in the hope of picking up where she left off.

Peering up at the red-brick house on Willoughby Street, things look exactly the same.

Across the road, elderly twins Miss Rose and Lily Pegg are still peeping through their net curtains on 'neighbourhood watch', just as they did on the morning she disappeared, and the roof still isn't fixed.

Inside number 77, however, everything has changed since the fateful winter morning Norah left a note for her husband, Adam, dropped eight-year-old Ella to school and asked her best friend, Fay, to take care of newborn Willa for just a few hours.

Herself a mum of one, in interviews, the former English teacher MacGregor has revealed how she took inspiration from Henrik Ibsen's 1869 play A Doll's House, which also sees a woman called Nora abandon her family in a bid to discover herself.

At the time, the Norwegian playwright told how he hoped to challenge the judgment of "feminine conduct … [in] an exclusively male society".

Almost 150 years on, MacGregor's original tome feels as relevant as ever as it tackles the taboo of mothers who leave, and the challenges faced by the women who effectively take their place.

Penned without prejudice, from the very opening pages, she tantalises: why did Norah leave, where has she been all these years and, perhaps more importantly, why has she come back?

Over the course of a tense bank holiday weekend, each member of the family is finally forced to face up to the answers.

From the jilted husband who's found love again but still wears his wedding band, to the withdrawn teen who'd rather believe her mum has been kidnapped than abandoned them, the author slides effortlessly into the shoes of each character along the way.

But it's the smallest member of the clan whose story leaves the greatest impact as wide-eyed Willa slowly discovers the truth about 'Auntie Norah' and the woman she knows only as 'Mummy'.

As the daughter of an avid reader and storyteller, MacGregor was reportedly called after Virginia Woolf, and certainly lives up to her namesake - famous for her use of multiple perspectives.

Speaking about her multifaceted style, she explained: "Point of view is my favourite technique in writing novels - I usually write from several points of view as I believe in the notion that everyone sees the world differently."

Layered and lyrical, suffice to say, Norah Wells isn't the only one making an Astonishing Return this week.

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