What happens when the Mother who left returns to her family after a substantial amount of time? And what happens to the Mother who stayed in her place? These are only a handful of questions that Virginia Macgregor raises in her utterly wonderful second novel 'The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells'. Rooted in the importance of family and maternal bonds, it follows the story of Norah, returning to her home on the fictional Willoughby Street and facing her turblant teenage daughter, her bewildered husband and her conflicted best friend/rival.
The writing is so sharp yet comforting, Macgregor easily taps into the many personas that cover the novel, ranging from young Willa obsessed with family unity and foxes, to the family dog Louis who simply wants to protect those he loves from danger. From this, we witness a family begin to come apart as slowly as you turn the pages, every conversation is completely absorbing and bursts with the same charm and familiarity as 'What Milo Saw'. I could be wrong, but there is a slight nod to 'Milo' through a particular character, known only as the boy with 'the squinty eyes'. The shifting perspective adds a unique and interesting narrative to the novel, as it is often confined to the interior household over the course of four days, particular through the eyes of young Willa. Her charm completely transforms her into the most likable character, a child who never quite understands the complex family dynamic that is sprung upon her, yet is completely open and welcoming to everything, in contrast to her teenage sister Ella, who longs to bury any mention or memory of Norah in any way she can. Willa's particular way of seeing the world is fascinating and poignant, and Macgregor writes with such sincerity and emotion, you really wish you had the same optimism as Willa.
Then we have Norah herself, who immediately from the offset you dismiss as the heartless Mother who abandoned her family, as Society has a tendency to do, but when Norah has her chance to speak, she uncovers so much more than you would expect, and it wasn't simply a matter of packing up and leaving. Macgregor, through Norah, tackles so many issues that face contemporary Britain today but ones that are so easily overlooked, loneliness, depression, grief, long-term illness to name but a few, but she writes in the most accessible way that will guarantee to warm your heart, and change your perception of why people have to leave, rather than why they choose to leave. I shed many tears whilst reading this novel, and no doubt it will stir many emotions in many readers. The writing becomes extraordinarily vivid at times, conjuring gorgeous images through colour or nature, the bursting Hummingbird at the end of the novel being a particular highlight.
Profoundly humane and insightful, Macgregor's second novel is an utter delight. Simple in prose but bold in ideas, 'The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells' is about what it means to love your family, to learn how to forgive and how to understand. Bloomin' Brilliant.