Reviews: The Globe and Mail

Normal? Not in this family

The Globe & Mail
Saturday, April 21, 2001

Getting to Normal
By Sandra Campbell Stoddart, 244 pages, $29.95

For most of the last 10 years, Sandra Campbell has worked as a researcher and writer on media and family violence and its impact on children, turning out reports for educators, community groups and government agencies. In 1994, she co-designed an international education program, based in Toronto, which uses the arts and artists to help rehabilitate children raised in war zones.

Campbell now offers a first novel that turns her experience of emotionally wounded children into a cri de coeur from the mind of a depressive, perilously sensitive girl of 7. In the course of describing young Alice’s stumbling, intensely monitored journey toward health and productivity, Campbell explodes the idea of normalcy, revealing an outwardly stable middle-class family fraught with buried conflict.

Between pediatric reports full of stark assessment, Campbell lets Alice tell her own story. We learn of a mother who gave up a promising career to become a resentful homemaker, a workaholic father and a sister of 14 who vacillates between tough/tender love and backhanded ridicule. Into the mix comes Irma, a housekeeper whose lively and loving spirit offers Alice a chance to become whole.

Alice’s voice is untempered by social graces, in fact is more often bewildered by them. Her observations on her icy-jittery mother, distracted father and bossy sister have a distanced, fly-on-the-wall quality -- sometimes so pronounced that she seems like an alien being stupefied by the strangeness of the human animal.

Campbell’s striking gift is her ability to draw us inside that alienated psyche, and make us see a common family scenario as if it were something more like a surreal nightmare. Alice’s view of self and family, dubbed not "normal" by all around her, becomes our own view. We can see that her behaviour is odd and disturbing, but that’s largely because she seems unable to renounce the guerrilla candour that all children must abandon to become socially acceptable. Alice never does give in to normalcy; there’s a sense that she will remain child-like indefinitely, and permanently scarred by her mother’s coldness.

Some parents may well be emotionally incapable of acknowledging the insights at work here. Others, at once charmed and saddened by Alice, will re-ask the most important question:

Have I loved my children enough?

Contributing reviewer Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail’s first-fiction reviewer.

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