Reviews: Halifax Herald

Campbell’s narrative masterful, unwavering

by Jeanette Lynes
Halifax Herald

Getting to Normal

Lewis Carroll’s dreamy Alice falls down a rabbit hole. Disoriented and alone, she finds herself in a world full of arbitrary rulesand rule makers. Her only way out is to stand up for herself and confront the queen’s awful authority by asserting her presence.

Shift the scene to comfortable (if not stifling), upper-ish middle-class urban Canada, late twentieth century. Sandra Campbell’s “Alice” is seven-year-old Alice Redfern, daughter of Henry Redfern, an academic, and his high-strung wife, Frances, a would-be concert pianist. She is the younger, adoring sister of fourteen-year-old Sarah.

Shortlisted for the Chapters/Robertson Davies First (Unpublished) Novel Award, Campbell’s story examines three months in Alice’s life, beginning with nine days spent in pediatric isolation leading to gradual recovery only to end with another trauma which places Alice back in hospital. If this isn’t traumatic enough, Alice’s parents are estranged, and Sarah is going through “normal” teenage rebellion.

Campbell’s subject is childhood trauma. Her story unfolds through Alice’s point of view. Campbell’s handling of a seven-year-old voice is masterful and unwavering; the degree to which she empathizes with the child’s plight is all but astonishing. Campbell ensures that we, as readers, empathize with Alice, too, by giving us information that Alice does not have — her patient charts. Alice is being treated for headaches, disorientation, and withdrawal symptoms. Her doctors suspect that she may have a viral infection of the central nervous system. The novel’s opening section alternates between these clinical, bureaucratic medical reports and Alice’s personal responses to the institutionalized, mysterious (to her) world of the hospital. As a novelistic device, the medical reports work well; they provide key insights into the ambivalence, if not hostility, Frances feels about the prospects of having a “half-wit” daughter.  

It doesn’t take us long to see that Alice is not nearly as dysfunctional as her mother, and even though it is Alice who is pathologized, her reactions to an intimidating world that doesn’t make sense are, in fact, very “normal.” Alice’s chart reads:

“resists restraint procedures.” Who wouldn’t? She is described as “lonely” and “very hard to reach.” Who wouldn’t be lonely in pediatric isolation? What child wouldn’t be traumatized by her mother’s rejection of her?

Campbell describes both physical pain and psychic pain with graphic precision. It is the latter that is most damaging, her story suggests. Alice’s most serious offense, as far as her mother is concerned, is that she is a “daydreamer” who asks too many questions. Frances Redfern is continually silencing her daughter. Over and over, Alice is told that she must stay very still, and quiet.  

Not surprisingly, Alice’s recovery at home coincides with her mother’s departure, for a number of weeks, to New York.

Alice’s new caregivers become Irma, a warm and fun-loving refugee from Sarajevo, and Laura Wilkie, her encouraging and capable home-teacher. The potential bleakness of Campbell’s story is balanced by Alice’s growing strength and irrepressible imagination. We cheer her on as she comes to embrace, more and more, her “dreaming part,” her questioning nature.  

Campbell uses bird symbolism to underpin Alice’s growing awareness. Joey, the budgie Alice receives, with mixed feelings, as a convalescence gift, prompts her to reflect upon freedom, incarceration, and her own sense of displacement: “Normal birds were lucky the way they got to see things from so high in the sky, but Joey would never see anything that way. Sarah said he could fly one day, but he never left his cage. Besides, if he could fly, where would he go? Where was his home?”

Joey eventually flies out of his cage, no doubt reflective of Alice’s progress.

When Alice’s mother returns home in an attempt to reunite with her family, Alice has gained enough confidence to assert herself: “Mom, it’s me, Alice. See me. See? Me?” Little does Alice know, she is on the verge of yet another “fall,” and new challenges. But by now we know that she is a trooper, and that her imagination and inner strength will get her through.  

Wrought by Campbell’s skilful hand, Alice’s childlike documentary has the immediacy of a diary, a testimonial. We bear witnesses to this tough, imaginative little kid who only wants someone to listen, and love her. That’s where we come in. And we do.

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