Reviews: Hamilton Spectator

An age of painful innocence; Just what is ‘normal ’ and how does a little girl find her way there?

Reviewed By Aidan Johnson
The Hamilton Spectator
Saturday, March 10, 2001 W05

Getting To Normal
By Sandra Campbell
Stoddart, $29.95

In her Ghana memoir All God’s Children Wear Travelling Shoes, the poet Maya Angelou describes one of the most fearful events in human life as simultaneously one of the most ecstatic, if viewed with the right sort of nostalgia: "To be left alone, swaying, on the tightrope of youthful unknowing."

Toronto author Sandra Campbell explores the tightrope of youthful unknowing in a unique and unforgettable way with every sentence of her first novel, Getting To Normal.

The title describes the goal of the main character, Alice. For her, the challenge of life is not getting "back" to normal, but getting to normal for the first time, ever. Alice is all of seven years old. But unlike most other children her age, Alice does not jump rope or play sports or even attend a normal school. Her life is a blur of sick beds and claustrophobic bleached hospital rooms. Simply put, Alice is sick; her narration throughout the novel is a poetic and sometimes tortured get-well card to her own soul.

The confusion and refreshingly innocent youthfulness of the narrator-patient is communicated through the book’s simple, often heart-wrenching prose. (It is no small wonder that the book was nominated as a semi-finalist for the Chapters/Robertson Davies First Novel Award, so clear and readable is its language.)

The reader joins Alice in her utter confusion over what’s going on inside and around her body. She understands and vividly describes conflict with her parents, her jealousy of her free-spirited, headstrong and parent-defying teenaged sibling Sarah, the inner turmoil of wondering if she should mask or hide symptoms in order to avoid painful medical treatment and more hospital visits. But she -- and we -- never really find out what causes her acute migraine headaches and anti-social bouts of withdrawal.

Perhaps the answer to Alice’s plight lies in the adult world. But she doesn't know. And we don't know either -- the adult world is far, far away from Alice’s sad and medicine-smelling wonderland.

Campbell’s challenge in writing the novel is not simply to describe the gaping and mysterious vastness that a seven-year-old child perceives as the world, though that would be a formidable task in itself. Rather, her challenge is to specifically describe the agony that a seven-year-old feels when she’s experiencing the unusual trauma of bad health.

Bad health is a scary enough prospect for anyone, never mind a seven-year-old child on the "tightrope" of childhood naiveté. The author rises to the task admirably.

The main narrative thrust of the book deals with Alice’s conflicts with her family and medical team. The doctors come across sometimes as cold and distant, like remote stars in the black abyss, and other times as warm and comforting. This subtle variation illustrates the author’s astute comprehension of children’s hot and cold changes of attitude, as well as her ability to translate that comprehension into literary substance.

The character of Alice is wonderfully believable.

She thinks as a seven-year-old child thinks, writes notes as a seven-year-old child writes. This is a stunning achievement in first-person perspective writing.

Most novels published with children as the main characters are targeted at child audiences, though many are of significant depth and literary interest to mature readers. (One might start with Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and work through to Rowling’s Harry Potter.) This book is unusual, in that its target audience is clearly adult.

Like Alice, a typical child would be hard pressed to see the gaping gulf of understanding, worldliness, and priorities that lie between his world and his parents’ world. Getting To Normal maps this gulf, and strings a tightrope across it for readers brave enough for the passage.

Aidan Johnson of Hamilton is co-editor of the University of Toronto student newspaper and a member of the Toronto Star Community Editorial Board. 2001 The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved.

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