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Review: Closed Doors by Lisa O’Donnell

Closed Doors was recommended to me by Naomi as part of her Feminist Sundays series. It sounded like a rivetting read, being written from the point of view of an 11 year old boy,Michael, whose mother (Ma) is raped one night by a stranger coming home from work and the trauma that ensues. This trauma is compounded by the fear of attitudes at that time and place – the book is set in the early eighties against a backdrop of the Falklands War and miners’ strike on a remote Scottish island.

Lisa O’Donnell started her career as a screenwriter, winning the Orange Screenwriting Prize in 2000, before turning to novels. It shows! This book was a complete page turner and I read it in one sitting. It is beautifully plotted and paced (ignoring the fact that the beginning was a little one-dimensional and slow) in a way that the action – even though it is all set on one small island – never lets up. The sense of time, ways of life, in the early 80s – no cars, unemployment among the male population – is not obtrusively, but authentically present.

What I did find though was that the characters never seemed real or authentic to me. The voice of Michael being that of an eleven year old boy, although excellently done with regard to the portrayal of characters in his surroundings, lacked a sense of overall physicality of the island, which would have added to the story (only the fact that Scottish islands are relentlessly cold and wet really came across.)

More significantly, consistency was sacrificed in favour of plot and although I felt that Michael and his immediate family were carefully drawn, O’Donnell could never decided whether the vast cast of islanders was a population of censorious savages (socially speaking) or a community with a heart of gold. Having a feel for this is important in helping the reader sympathise with the decisions of the protagonists, and in the end I felt for the most part unmoved by the characters’ plight – save that of Michael’s father (Da), who through his love of his wife takes the brunt of suspicion that arises from the strange early events of the book.

There was a lot of violence and strong emotion and fighting, but the violence (child on child, adult on adult adult on child, you get the idea) tended to feel a bit cartoon like. Michael’s voice can be very funny, which is an attractive part of the read, breaking the tension effectively at times. I can see too that this is a coping and distancing mechanism used by Michael, and indeed used by many children in difficult sections in real life. However sometimes this really stopped me from feeling a real sense of palpable physical nervousness that I get on reading a really well done build up to a what-happens-next climax.

Having said all this, I did read it in one sitting and this book is the next to go on my “must give this to someone else and tell them to read it” list. Just look at it as pure entertainment rather than a deep statement on life and how it is.

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11 Comments

    • It was definitely a good read and I am very appreciative of the recommendation! But yes I was thinking how strange different reactions can be as I read the book. I know you felt very moved by it and therefore I guess you must have felt that it was more authentic for you than it was for me.

      We need a third or fourth or more opinion!

      • Yes, it’d be interesting to see what other people think.

        It did feel authentic to me – I didn’t notice the lack of descriptions of the surroundings, but the locals and their changing opinions depending on the latest bit of gossip felt true to me.

        I usually have huge issues with child narrators too and I did consider it while I was reading. I wonder if the horror of what had happened and my concern as a reader/parent/teacher that Michael be protected from it overrode anything else.

        Anyway, it’s really interesting to see a different view – it makes you consider your own more – and it’s definitely a good book to discuss.

      • Oh I just remembered something, which was at one point I did feel genuinely concerned for Alice and her step-family – wondering whether there was something more sinister for her in that set up. I work with young people as well and that is something that happens sometimes. Happily it turned out to be a false alarm in my mind but I know what you mean about concern over child characters. We all have our different triggers but yes this feeling of sympathy is a very real phenemenon.

    • I read and read until 1am and that was because I knew I had the luxury of a half day today. I work half days in the school holidays. And now I am going to indulge in one of my most favourite of things, which is an afternoon nap.

  1. When someone says they read a novel in one sitting, that’s usually all I need to hear. Thanks for a great review, Denise. I’ll certainly put this on my list to read. Enjoy your nap!

    • Yes, Lisa O’Donnell has a great gift for making it so exciting that you want to read on, and the main four characters have very compelling personalities – they’re all fiery and have strong opinions so there’s lots of fascinating interaction between them.

  2. I really like your reviews, Denise. You report enough so that I get a strong sense of whether this book is for me or isn’t, and that’s so helpful and rare to find. Do you publish reviews on Goodreads? I’ve just started exploring the site and haven’t yet whether it will be very useful to me. I suppose if a person is “friends” with the right people, it becomes more useful? (Sorry about that little meander, now back to the book/author you’re talking about.) I’ve found that script writers often have to sacrifice character development and motivation in order to craft a smacking-good plot. It’s so difficult to combine the two, and sometimes all a person really wants is a page-turner of a story. Sounds like this would do for that, but I’ll probably pass on it because I don’t stomach violence–I’m overly-sensitive and it brings on bad dreams, not to mention sad moods. I am too aware of it happening in real life, not in my personal sphere, but having social-worker training, I pick up on all the clues when I’m out in the city. It makes me very sad.

    • I’ve not tried Goodreads, and am only vaguely aware of it, although sometimes think I should be more so. I will check it out.

      I sometimes think I would be useless as one of those web reviewers who gets sent free books to write about 🙂 I think I would be very disappointing for those purposes. I think not all books are for all people and although enjoy reading for its own pleasure, am also very interested in *why* books work or not.

      • Disappointing to the author, perhaps, but not to the readers. I like reviews that are honest, not hype.

        Which is why I could never write a review of one of my friends’ books. Reading, I can rarely put away my like for their personalities and my desire to be their “friend.” I wouldn’t be critical enough. Reviews should be a bit critical, and talk about why books work or don’t. My opinion supports yours. We could start a club or movement (expect that I’m absolutely never a joiner).

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