“I exist in the eye of the storm, the calm in the centre of a perpetual hurricane of cars and lorries heading for the M6, the north and Scotland, or south to Penzance and Land’s End. I sometimes wonder if they don’t go on the motorway at all, that I hear the same vehicles circling endlessly, a kind of multiple Flying Dutchman, doomed to travel for ever. I don’t regret for one minute that I am no longer one of them”.
Meet Quinn Smith who parked his caravan on a roundabout and decided to stay there for good. Far from being a usual tramp, he soon attracts the attention of local people and, of course, tabloids, which is obviously the last thing he needs or wants during his self-imposed exile. I think we can all agree that it is a very interesting premise, so I was a little disappointed to learn that this book really belongs to the ‘family secrets’ genre. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with ‘family secrets’ books, except that if you read enough of them, you can see the secrets a good hundred pages ahead and you desperately need the book to offer you more to keep you hooked.
So what does The Roundabout Man offer in terms of substance?
During the course of the novel we learn the history of Quinn Smith, immortalised as a clumsy three year old with unlaced shoes by his novelist mother who might’ve been the true heroine of the book. She is a grotesque figure, an unloving mother whom we are forced to dislike and a world famous author of a series of children’s books who (although ‘all resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental’) is quite obviously partly based on Enid Blyton.
Morrall contrasts an idyllic childhood portrayed in Larissa’s books against Quinn’s sad and bleak existence on a roundabout near a service station. The twist is that Larissa Smith, the writer beloved all over the world was something of an evil bitch to her own children and couldn’t give Quinn and his three older sisters the sort of love that should come natural to a mother. Instead she writes them all into her books where she could be the exemplary mother who patted their children on their heads and gave them cups of hot chocolate. As you can imagine reading about your mother’s fictional affections and comparing it to the loveless reality would not do wonders for your personal development and self-esteem. Therefore all four children of Larissa Smith are messed up for life in ten different ways. It’s a shame that the mother wasn’t made into a more complex and conflicted character which would give the book more edge. As it is, we are not given any proof of her redeeming qualities even though we see her through the loving eyes of Quinn. Nonetheless, we are offered some kind of an explanation.
My main complaint about books like this is that they have a tendency to explain their characters’ behaviour with one secret. Once that secret is revealed, everything becomes clear and makes sense. I think that’s narrative laziness and looking for an easy way out. Other than that, you really aren’t allowed to blame anything on your parents after you turn twenty-five. You are responsible for your own mistakes, but that, sadly, makes for a poor plot device.
Morrall asks: “How much are we shaped by the stories we’ve grown up with, the films we’ve seen, the television series we’ve been following for years?” The sad answer to this is: a lot. Especially if you happen to be the prototype of an internationally famous character of children’s fiction. It does seem to be a label hard to shake off if, like Quinn, you are a rather insignificant human being and don’t have much to counter-balance it. Quinn’s belated coming of age among his new friends from the service station is the book’s strongest point. In the drab scenery of a motorway the reader can find a subtle beauty, so different from the in-your-face kind of the children stories.
When I was a kid myself I too wanted to live on a bushy roundabout near our house. Now that I am grown up I realise it wouldn’t have been such a great idea after all. And this is what The Roundabout Man is mostly about – it’s about facing up to your childhood, its dreams and beliefs that more often than not can’t stand the test of time. It is also about the allure of childhood, this ‘paradise lost’ that looks a lot better on paper than in reality.