Closed Doors – Lisa O’Donnell


Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.

I’ve decided to review Lisa O’Donnell’s second novel Closed Doors as part of Feminist Sundays for reasons that should become very obvious as you read on…

It’s the 1980s and Michael Murray, aged 11, and his family – Ma, Rosemary; Da, Brian, and Granny, Shirley – live on the Isle of Bute in western Scotland. Da is unemployed and Ma works as a cleaner at the local school. They supplement Ma’s income with the money Grandpa Jake, Granny’s husband, left Da when he died.

Everyone says Ma is very smart and could have gone to university or something like it, but she was too in love with my da and mad for the island, even though people here gossip all the time and want to know all your business. It makes my granny crazy even though she gossips all the time and wants to know everyone’s business…

‘She looks like a prostitute,’ says Ma.

‘And drinks like a fish,’ says Granny.

Da tells Granny to be quiet and mind her business, but Granny can’t. She loves to talk about other people and their business, it’s her favourite thing in the whole world, and so she waits till Da is out of the room and calls Mrs Connor a slut. Then she whispers a story to Ma. I can’t hear them but Ma nods and tuts and sighs.

‘Disgusting,’ Ma says to Granny.

Granny nods. ‘I told you. A regular wee hussy,’ spits Granny.

Michael’s problems involve the local girls, Alice McFadden and Marianne Cameron. He’s at an age when he’s started to notice them but doesn’t know how to behave around them and vice versa. They taunt him, Alice in particular, and he wants to punch her in the arm but knows that if he does, she’ll tell her older brother who’ll tell his mum and then he’ll be made to apologise.

Things begin to change one night when Michael is woken by screaming and talking. He tries to find out why his mum is crying but is sent back to bed.

I wait five minutes until a new commotion begins downstairs. It’s like they can’t stop themselves. I decide I’ve had enough and go downstairs. I am very careful to avoid the creaky step this time. I make it to the kitchen door and no one has heard me. I’m quite pleased with myself and lean against the door.

Although the word is never mentioned, it’s evident to the adult reader from what follows that Michael’s ma has been raped. Not wanting to share this with an 11-year-old boy, when Michael’s da finds him at the door again, Granny tells him ‘Ma has seen a flasher’.

‘Why is there all this blood, Da?’ I ask. It’s making me scared and I think I might cry.

‘Ma fell over, son. She ran away from the bad man and then she fell, don’t worry, son, away to bed now,’ says Da.

Not telling her young son is one thing, but Rosemary also refuses to go to the police fearing the local gossip:

‘People would understand this wasn’t her fault,’ says Granny.

‘Would you understand, Ma?’

‘Of course I would. What do you take me for?’

‘What about Bridie Forsyth?’

‘Bride Forsyth couldn’t keep her knickers on and Peter Hughes is a good man who goes to chapel every Sunday. He’s very good-looking. He wouldn’t hurt a soul.’

‘You don’t know the first thing about Peter Hughes. He’s a fucking drunk and a mean one at that. No woman would make a thing like that up. She had to leave the fucking island with the gossiping.’

‘You know how Bridie was. She was looking for it if you ask me!’

The book goes on to deal with the aftermath of the rape: of Rosemary’s refusal to report it and the consequences that has for herself, her husband and the local community, and for Michael, dealing with the adult world for the first time – his feelings for girls, his and his friends’ discovery of porn, and, once he does work out what’s going on, how he deals with knowing that his mother was raped.

Closed Doors isn’t an easy read – be warned, reading it in public may result in you sobbing in cafes – but I do think it’s a great book. Tackling rape through the eyes of a pre-teen boy highlighted the attitudes of the adults around him towards the victims (interestingly it’s his da who has the most feminist attitude) and whether the education we provide teenagers with around the subject is sufficient. (Considering the literature produced by some police forces aimed at women during the festive season, I’d suggest not.)



Thanks to William Heinemann for the review copy.

10 thoughts on “Closed Doors – Lisa O’Donnell

  1. Sounds like a great novel, and I love what you quoted, especially: “veryone says Ma is very smart and could have gone to university or something like it, but she was too in love with my da and mad for the island”. It says SO much about the character and the cultural consequences of being in love at a certain moment in your life and in a given historical context!

    Thanks again for joining!


  2. I’ve been looking for a book that sounds really gripping and this does. It’s been a while since I read a book that made me cry in a public place – last one was Julain Barnes’ Levels of Life. I am going to give this one a go and hope it’s not too much emotionally…


  3. Thanks for this review. To me your blog is one long Feminist Sunday, and I love that about it. (Having never properly dived into contemporary fiction so far, I confess I think of this site as a useful map of a place I’m going to visit at some point. It’s reassuring to know that if I ever get started, I can go to your archives for a good recommendation.)


  4. Pingback: Review: Closed Doors by Lisa O’Donnell | listenwatchreadshare

  5. Pingback: British Writing is not all Grey: Fiction Uncovered | The Writes of Woman

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