Malcolm Orange Disappears, by Jan Carson, is a gloriously quirky story about an eleven year old boy, his flighty family, and the residents of the Baptist Retirement Village where he finds the best friends he has ever had in his short but eventful life.
Prior to moving to the Portland village, Malcolm had travelled across nineteen American states, his family dealing with every ontoward predicament by absconding. Crushed into the backseat of his father’s ancient but reliable Volvo, along with a slowly diminishing collection of grandparents and assorted possessions, Malcolm develops neuroses linked to a plethora of potential hazards, from diarrohea to roundabouts to dreams. When he notices small perforations appearing all over his body he fears that he is in danger of entirely disappearing.
From his father, Malcolm has learned to lie imaginatively and proficiently. Malcolm’s view of life has been forged from beauty parlour magazines, inappropriate films and snippets of overheard adult conversation. He hates his father so when the man abandons his family, including his recently born and very forgettable second son, Malcolm is delighted. His mother is not and descends into a gloomy stupor leaving Malcolm to fend largely for himself.
The retirement village is a welcome, permanent home after so many years of living out of a car and cheap motels. Malcolm observes each of the elderly residents in turn, learning of their habits, foibles and ailments. These men and women have lived their varied lives, dealt with hardships and the expectations of others. They have become what they are due to choices made, sometimes regretted, and circumstances accepted alongside those beyond their control. They may now be feeble in body and mind but each retains a healthy dislike of the pernicious Director in charge of the facility in which they have been placed.
Malcolm’s arrival is followed by that of the Director’s teenage daughter, a wilful child whose resentments against her divorced parents cause her to create mayhem whenever she spies an opportunity. Malcolm is in thrall to her, unused as he is to interacting with anyone close to his own age. He confides his discovery of his perforations and the fears he harbours of his imminent disappearance, but is met with derision. It is his elderly friends who recognise his distress and take up his cause.
I have long been a fan of the author’s writing and this, her debut novel, is no exception. It is fluid, original and very funny. Her eye for detail as she recounts the quirks of each character is fabulous. She offers up the foolish and absurd with a sympathetic wit; her perceptions and understated wisdom are a joy to read.
It is not a straightforward tale. There is the disappearing boy, a talking cat, and a profusion of people so preoccupied with their personal concerns that they cannot see beyond their own desires. At face value there are elements of the surreal, but the message at its heart is universal.
An entertaining, life affirming, unorthodox story that I enjoyed immensely. This book deserves to be widely read.