The Chronicles of Narmo
by Caitlin Moran.
Corgi Books 2013 (1992).
The French title of this novella — Comment je suis devenue célèbre en restant chez moi! — misses the punning of the original English by omitting the anagram of the author’s surname and the clear reference to The Chronicles of Narnia. And yet it accurately describes how the fledgling journalist drew almost exclusively on her home circumstances while still in her early to mid-teens to win prizes and awards (such as The Observer’s young reporter competition) as well as penning this comedic family portrait, published when she was still 16.
She slims down the chaos of being the eldest of homeschooled siblings by reducing the number from an actual eight to a fictional five — Morag, Lily, Aggy, Josh and Poppy — but, one suspects, only marginally exaggerating incidents with witty hyperbole.
Twelve chapters purport to chronicle life in the Wolverhampton family from one Christmas to the next but the conceit is followed very loosely, with random incidents reported and threads reappearing now and again. I have to be honest here and say it became a bit tedious towards the end but as a tour de force by a young author the whole is extraordinary.
The author’s introduction (presumably added in 2013 when this edition was issued) underlines how important libraries were to all the children in shaping their liberal education away from schooling of any kind, either formal or informal. She references classics by Johanna Spyri, Hans Christian Anderson and Sarah Chauncey Woolsey alongside the likes of Tolkien and Lewis, Edith Nesbit and Louisa May Alcott, Spike Milligan and Terry Pratchett. It’s very easy to spot the influences of some of these authors in the descriptions of the Narmo household while marvelling at how their essences been almost seamlessly integrated into the text.
I say almost seamlessly integrated because, especially in the second half, the narrative feels to me a bit laboured, especially with the humour which, of course, will elicit different responses from individual readers. Incidents such as a holiday in Scotland or a jumble sale felt drawn out almost to breaking point and the comedic possibilities laid on too thickly with a trowel.
Where it works best for me is in the insights into the psyches of family members: the vague responsibility felt by Morag as the eldest (clearly a self-portrait), the cunning connivances of two-year-old Poppy to get what she wants, the familiar bickering that passes between parents Bill and Carol, and the family’s casual acceptance of what is clearly an unusual state of affairs as entirely normal. Though outsiders can be depicted as caricatures (I’m thinking of when there are visits from the grandmother and from the education inspectors) there’s an amiable familial relationship amongst the tight-knit core group that feels authentic for being being founded on reality.
Finally, I took great joy from the flashes of language that indicated mature writing arriving at an early age. Here, for instance is a thumbnail sketch of Carol in Chapter Two:
In the early days of Flower Power, just after people started respecting plants and just before they started smoking them, Carol had cherished visions of being Earth Mother extraordinaire; nurture of children, worshipper of cats, wearer of the widest bell-bottoms in all of Southern England. But with the advent of Bill, and the passing of flares, these dreams had been mislaid.
Or when Morag pictures her life as a writer she declares to Josh (10): ‘I shall live in London and write my masterpiece, unhindered by male intervention. All you men do is lose socks and drink all the milk.’ Her sister Lily, at fourteen, “is a year younger than Morag: blonde, pretty, smug.” Josh, meanwhile, “had tried reading, but the words had not been in a friendly mood” — I’m sure we’ve all been there.
Or, in a Byronic turn of phrase, Christmas at the Narmos is characterised as “mad, bad, and dangerous to eat in any great quantity.” Unsurprisingly the seasonal feast of the 15-year-old writer — whether the fictional or the actual being a moot point– ends with a bang when a home-made Christmas cracker explodes and sets fire to the Christmas tree.
I leave the last word with the older Caitlin Moran giving us this picture of her nerdy young self: “Every day, I put my hat on, and walked to the local library, and came back an hour later with a rucksack full of books.” At 13 the bespectacled teenager decided to switch from being reader to author, her first step on becoming famous while staying at home.
Read for Novellas in November #NovNov