sandra campbell's first novel is an awesome exercise in perspective. Told from the point of view of seven-year-old Alice, Getting To Normal recounts the young girl's story after she sustains mysterious injuries and illness -- concussions, headaches, withdrawal -- serious enough to send her to the hospital.During the hospital sequences we're supplied with Alice's medical charts, complete with her nurses' and doctors' observations, all of which are medically sound, written in hyper-detail, but hopelessly out of touch with what's really going on with the patient.
Alice, for her part, copes with overbearing nurses, her distant family and her way-too-distracted mother until, with a collective shrug, the doctors send her home to recuperate.
There, she is almost completely abandoned until her mother suddenly leaves for New York. She can't cope. Enter the empathetic Irma, who moves in along with her husband and begins to draw Alice out.
Alice, in turn, wants desperately to connect to her brilliant teenage sister, but Sarah is in adolescent mode -- meaning she can be more than a little self-involved -- and besides, while Alice is bonding happily with Irma, Sarah desperately misses their mother.
This is a book that gets under your skin. The situation is so real, the characters so deftly drawn -- Irma's traumatic background in war-torn Serbia, Alice's mother's profound sense of personal and professional frustration, Sarah's terror at being perceived as coming from a family that's not normal -- you do have to wonder whether someone's kidding about this being a first novel.
In very precise prose that never lets you doubt it's all coming out of the brain of a seven-year-old, Campbell tells a powerful story of longing and discovery.
GETTING TO NORMAL by Sandra Campbell (Stoddart), 256 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNNN