THE GLASS DOOR BY R.M. CLARKE (DALZELL PRESS, 2018)
Reviewed by Scott Manley Hadley
The Glass Door is a novel for people who want to get stuck in to a big story. It isn’t a hugely long novel in terms of page length, but it is detailed in the kinda way that many people love their fiction to be. Lots of things happen, and everything happens for a clear and justified narrative reason, even if doesn’t seem so at first.
The novel is about the childhood and early adolescence of a girl named Rosie, who is born to young (and scandalously single) Sandra in Ireland in 1972. The mother and her infant child set out to find the charming reprobate who fathered the child, and the young family spend a few years unhappily living with (and sometimes without) the man in London. This all tumbles apart when – it is implied – the unemployed wastrel father fucks Rosie’s school teacher, so Sandra decides to have no more to do with him. Without Rosie’s useless father holding them back, they return to Ireland and try to live independently, though soon end up in Sandra’s childhood home with the grumpy and ashamed Marie, Rosie’s grandmother.
Marie has been scorned by her devout Catholic community for daring to raise and then failing to abandon a girl who allowed herself to be embarrassed in the “family way”. From this point onwards, their middlingly bleak, unaffluent life becomes darker, as Rosie ages and her mother makes an economically-motivated marriage to a man who may or may not be abusing both Sandra and Rosie. This is one of several narrative elements of The Glass Door that is self-consciously ambiguous.
The novel begins with, and is regularly punctuated by, narrative asides containing dialogue between Rosie and some kind of hypnotist or therapist. These sections are presented under chapter headings with letters rather than numbers, and thanks to these the reader is gently walked towards an overall ambiguity of meaning and truth and reality. Clarke’s writing is engaging and personal, she captures voice well, and there is a firm sense of place, too. I felt quite accurately transplanted into grimy South London and then bucolic, but boring, rural Ireland. They’re both places I have been to and Clarke made them feel familiar.
When the three principal characters are living together in their multi-generational matriarchy, things begin to unravel. In the brief window before the evil stepfather enters, Rosie starts encountering things that give a taste of magical realism to the text. Clarke eases-in with the hallucinations and thus the “truth” remains ambiguous until, suddenly, Rosie has gone too far.
When she is a child, it is difficult to see how Rosie’s behaviour differs from standard imaginative play, but once there is a serious housefire of blurry origin, it becomes clear that something serious is happening. The reader, whose knowledge of the narrative is filtered through the memories Rosie is sharing in the memorialising/reflective asides, soon becomes confused and conflicted, intentionally so. Clarke shows only what Rosie remembers seeing, and because what Rosie saw and what Rosie remembers seeing may not be what was “actually” there to see, the text becomes a guessing game of increasing intensity.
As the novel goes on, it becomes clear that Rosie has lost her grasp of the distinction between reality and dream, between truth and fiction. She is not pretending animals can talk to her, she believes animals talk to her; she does not see visions of her absent father, she is visited by him, and the terrifying magic she sees in a small model raven (stolen from a teacher) is something that deserves her panicked fear and respect. The Glass Door builds towards a denouement that is more unexpected (but not unsatisfyingly so) than I was anticipating, and Clarke deftly makes believable the familial response of Rosie’s family to her behaviour and psychological illness, even if the “actual science” does seem a bit shaky.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Glass Door, I liked the characters and the world and the narrative that Clarke created… but I definitely found myself frustratingly keen to read on, hoping for an explanation of the slowly-teased mysteries. Though, yes, I did find it gripping and I did want to continue to discover who Rosie was talking to in the present, when she was talking to them and why… I wanted, also, to know the significance of the magical elements of the text, of the locations and the people that were introduced with weighty commentary in the therapy scenes who initially seemed less significant… I didn’t stop reading, and I didn’t want to stop reading, but I wanted the heft of the story to kick in a little sooner, a little swifter.
This is, then, what I mean by saying The Glass Door is a great read for people who are looking to get stuck into something. This is a novel best suited for people more patient than I am. There are lots of characters and places to explore, there are many engaging narrative threads to pull apart and understand. This is a mysterious and a big text: richly imagined, gently terrifying and very human. The Glass Door isn’t a novel to read over the course of a week’s worth of commutes, rather it is one to read by a roaring fire over several lazy evenings during the Winter months. In fact, now is the perfect time of the year to order a copy and be led, in the dark, deep into the mind and history of Rosie.
Not a quick read, not a light read, but a well-constructed, solid, novel from an intriguing new voice. Worth a look, definitely!