I’ve had to take a break from preparing for Summer School in order to read Clare Morrall’s The Roundabout Man for this month’s Wednesday Morning Book Group. This, her most recent book, is my second Morrall re-read in the past couple of months in preparation for her visit to speak to the group in early September. Like The Language of Others it’s set locally and in this instance was sparked by an actual news item about a man who had been living for many years in a caravan on a roundabout near Wolverhampton. Quinn Smith’s roundabout isn’t quite as precisely placed and he hasn’t been living there quite as long but, when we first meet him, he has five years of living rough behind him and has learnt how to survive with the help of leftovers from the local service station cafe and the charity of the customers in the nearby laundrette. Unfortunately for Quinn, who only wants to be left alone, word of his existence gets out and a trainee reporter turns up to write a piece about him to impress her editor. As a result Quinn is attacked by vandals and forced to accept the help and friendship of those who work in the service station. His self-enforced isolation is over.
Gradually Morrall reveals what has forced Quinn to hide himself away and the reader discovers that this is not the first time the written word has been a destructive force in his life for Quinn is known world wide through his mother’s books in The Triplets and Quinn series and has been expected to meet public expectations and exist within their fictional perimeters ever since. Given that the books didn’t offer an accurate depiction of Smith family life in the first place and that Quinn is now more than fifty years older than the age he attained in the novels, this hasn’t been a particularly healthy existence.
There are several ideas being played out here. Primarily, perhaps, Morrall is exploring the place of fiction in our lives. Certainly, being identified through fiction and being expected to live up to it has been detrimental to all four of the Smith children. The triplets’ adult lives haven’t turned out that much better than Quinn’s. It is questionable whether or not any of them really understand how to live in the real world. But then, Morrall also seems to be asking if any of us can live without a little fiction in our lives. To some extent we all create fictions about ourselves to help us deal with the reality around us and I think many of us would claim to have learnt to understand more about our own lives by comparing and contrasting it with those of fictional characters.
However, there is definitely a strand in the novel suggesting that no one’s life is ever going to live up to a fictional ideal and questioning why then so many people are nostalgic for the kind of childhood idyll described in the fictional series. The people from the service station who befriend Quinn have all suffered in one way or another and have had to learn how to make the most of what life has left them. And then there are the foster children that the Quinn parents insist on taking in during the children’s childhood. Each one of these has a history that makes it very clear that for many childhood is not a time of picnics and treasure hunts. The word ‘damaged’ is the one that comes to mind most often. There are some really interesting and important ideas being explored here but in the end I felt that none of them was fully explored and that too often one situation would contradict another. I needed a more coherent line through the text.
And in general, that was the opinion of the group. There are some fascinating characters, especially amongst the employees at the service station, but in the end the plot and the thematic content don’t really coalesce. If you’re setting out to read Morrall for the first time then I wouldn’t start here. The Language of Others is a far better thought through novel.