Ewan Morrison’s fourth novel, Close Your Eyes is a virtual smorgasbord of emotive goodies: child abandonment, a hippy commune, anti-nuclear protests, post-natal depression and lashings of maternal guilt. Our heroine and narrator, Emma (formerly known as Rowan) grew up on a Scottish commune started by her mother, Jenna, and Jenna’s disenfranchised pals. But the commune isn’t the idyll that Jenna had envisioned, so she takes her child and runs. Ditching Rowan with her father (a Marxist and another disillusioned hippy), Jenna disappears – her car is eventually found and she’s assumed dead. Rowan is quickly picked up by Social Services and packed off to her maternal grandparents, re-educated (by and for the ‘plastic people’ her drop-out mother had hated), becomes Emma, meets a man, has a baby. As the novel opens, she’s struggling with parenthood (exhaustion, peer-pressure, depression) and after one particularly trying night, she leaves her tiny daughter, Sasa, with her Stepford McHusband, and drives back to Caithness to finally uncover the truth about her own mother.
I haven’t read Morrison before (though the internet is awash with praise for Tales From The Mall, his latest story collection) and so I didn’t know what to expect, and I don’t know if this book is representative of his usual style, but I’ve got to say, I wasn’t keen. Structurally, it’s pretty standard – an easy double-hander, Rowan’s story alternating with Emma’s, the two differentiated by Morrison’s use of the first person in Rowan’s sections (indicating that the child has, thus far, retained her personal integrity) and the second person in Emma’s (she’s alienated from her own existence, see?). They’re united at the end (spoiler?!), by which time Emma’s gone on enough of a cathartic voyage to be able to re-integrate the different facets of her own self, and the first person is re-instantiated in the present. If you like this sort of journey-of-personal-discovery, and appreciate idyll-gone-wrong and life-based-on-deception stories, you’ll probably love this, but I found it too sentimental and too reliant on easily recognisable tropes – the naïve hippy, the manipulative cult leader, the self-help brigade, the struggling new parent. There’s nothing wrong with these ingredients, of course. But while I was reading this, my brain kept spitting out other, better treatments of similar topics and themes, and there wasn’t really anything in Morrison’s book to make me keep reading other than my own tenacity (and this impending review, ahem).. For instance, for shell-shocked parenthood (and attendant marriage crack-up), see Helen Simpson’s Hey Yeah Right Get A Life or Jayne Ann Philip’s Motherkind (not her best, but still), or, for the trauma of birth and a bad marriage, try Elizabeth Baines’ The Birth Machine, or Joanne Kavenna’s The Birth Of Love, each one of which manages to create a specificity of experience that’s missing from Emma’s account, which felt, to me, a little generic, a little by-numbers.
The prose itself was too shrill – the incessantly short, repetitive sentences, were designed (I think) to replicate the staccato, hysterical thought-processes of a very troubled and shocked individual, but they irritated me; Emma’s internal monologue bored me rather than stirred my sympathy. I felt like the whole thing could have been heavily edited (chopped by perhaps a quarter) into a much stronger book – as it is, it felt, to me, like a rambling and rather clichéd treatment of a rich theme. The mother/daughter relationships are the lynchpin here, and the commune/cult aspects, while interesting, take up too much space in the book; Morrison is interested in the failure of Utopia, which is definitely a valid topic for a book of any length, but the failure of this particular utopia is pretty low-key (a dominating leader steers the commune in a cynical direction that annoys some other members, who then leave) – yet it takes up fully half the book.
Any Cop?: There’s always an audience for this subject matter – the social experiments of communal living, the immense stress of raising a child, the difficulties of constructing an imagined life for somebody who wants to escape the past, the way you can’t escape the past. But the treatment here isn’t very challenging (linguistically, syntactically, in characterisation or in plot) so I wouldn’t recommend it for a more literary-inclined readership.