Portsmouth poet Tina MacNaughton reviews Portsmouth novelist Gill Morton’s latest work
7 min read
Kissed to Death, Gillian Fernandez Morton’s second novel, is well-paced and thoughtful, a story that grips one from the beginning but also has a lot to communicate. The author’s background as an educational psychotherapist is evident in her insights into serious themes of loss, abandonment, and childhood secrets – and the impacts they have on children as they grapple with the challenges of growing into adulthood.
A prologue sets up the backstory swiftly and efficiently. The novel is mainly narrated from the perspective of central characters Elizabeth, her daughter Gemma, Elizabeth’s close friend and neighbour Sarah, and her grandson Kenny.
We are initially introduced to Elizabeth hanging out her washing in the yard, drawing us into the working-class, close-knit community atmosphere of wartime Portsmouth of the novel’s setting. Elizabeth is established early on as a reliable narrator and keeper of secrets – but by the end of the novel neither Kenny nor Gemma have learnt all the secrets of their respective families.
Secrets, losses, and abandonment
Both Kenny and Gemma have absent parents. Gemma’s father came home from the war a broken man, turned to drink, and walked out on her and Elizabeth. Kenny’s mother, Yvonne, left when was he was a baby and his sense that he was an unwanted child is unhappily confirmed when Elizabeth shows him a christening photograph found in a drawer after his grandmother’s death: ‘My mother. That’s her? She looks so unhappy. Was she unhappy?’ he asks.
Yvonne is given a voice in the prologue and we learn that Kenny was the product of rape by a stranger. Kenny, however, is never privy to this dark secret. He and Gemma grow up together as close friends, later to drift apart as children do. Gemma, likewise, is shrouded in secrets which her mother chooses not to share with her.
Path to adulthood
Kissed to Death is an interesting portrayal of young people moving into adulthood and finding their own paths. Kenny is uninterested at school, leaves as soon as he can and beginning to drift. He is seduced by the attractive yet dangerous Marit, who entraps Kenny as her sex slave, ultimately cutting him off from the outside world.
I appreciated the unconventional portrayal of gendered relationships: that it is Kenny who is coerced into becoming a sexual plaything for a devious woman rather than the well-worn, and more stereotypical portrayal of a young girl manipulated by a man.
Gemma at first appears the more capable and resilient of the two friends but recognises her fear of being on her own, and her tendency towards dark, introspective thoughts. This susceptibility leads her to prolong an unsatisfactory relationship (that later becomes controlling and then abusive) with the very ‘un-charming Prince Charming’, Bruce:
How had she allowed him to persuade her again and again that he really cared for her, that his jealousy was only stemming from love? How had he convinced her that, somehow, without him she would be nothing? Made her think it was a flaw in her, something permanently missing?
The Snow Queen and traditional folklore
Kissed to Death is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 story, ‘The Snow Queen’. Other traditional fairy-tale themes abound: being orphaned or lost, good triumphing over evil, and eventual reconciliation and reunion are all explored with considerable insight. Both Kenny and Gemma leave home and go on physical and emotional journeys as they ‘find themselves’, before finally being reunited in their home city of Portsmouth.
There are echoes of the ‘no place like home’ sentiment behind L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) as the characters in Kissed to Death find what they need in themselves and, quite possibly, their heart’s desire in each other. Kenny poignantly carries his tattered copy of The Snow Queen (a present from Gemma) on his journey, and the book becomes symbolic of their close ties and, perhaps, a warning of their shared vulnerability as children of missing parents. Like the Snow Queen, Marit is initially attractive and charming, but ultimately calculating and harmful to Kenny and other ‘lost’ young men.
Although there are strong indications they may become a romantic couple, it was pleasing that Kenny and Gemma end as very good friends, rather than falling dramatically into each other’s arms in a more obvious ‘romcom’ ending.
Fairy-tales, spiders, and witches
Gillian Fernandez Morton used stories in her therapeutic work with children, and this is reflected in a novel threaded with imagery from the stuff of fairy-tales. When they start school, Elizabeth notices sadly that Kenny and Gemma ‘disappear behind the door, rather like the children in the Pied Piper story’. Kenny uses language reminiscent of folklore and fairy-tale, referring to Marit as ‘a witch’ and ‘a spider’. He turns to dark, child-like imagery to describe his seduction and manipulation at her hands:
‘A spider?’ she asks.
‘Yes, a spider, because she lured me. She was beautiful, she had ways of making me feel so good, but it was all like a spider’s sticky threads. And then when she’d caught me, she started to devour me.’
By the end of the novel, when their friendship is rekindled, Kenny and Gemma have begun to understand that their fragility was a result of the ‘holes’ and losses in their childhoods:
‘Like magic. Yes, it was like magic. Or maybe like I was in a film, or a dream, and it took me too long to wake up. How could I have been so stupid?’
‘You and me, Kenny, we both thought dreams could come true, didn’t we? That something was going to be good for us – and then it wasn’t.’
Portsmouth, a city by the sea, is important in reflecting the emotional development of the central characters. Kenny and Gemma are drawn towards the water for solace, comfort, and meaning, and looking at it becomes of way of helping them come to terms with their feelings:
Sitting with Marit again on that last morning in the seaside shelter, watching the roaring waves, he’d tried to follow a single, rushing seagull in its pursuit of nothing, as a way of holding onto his own flying thought as she talked in that not-quite-English way.
Particularly effective are the rather poetic descriptions of Kenny watching ships leaving as he sits pondering his own direction in life:
Kenny is staring out into the dark, eyes following the faint lights of a ferry on its way out past the fort that had always seemed to him to just grow out of the sea. How deep must it be there, he thinks.
It was a pleasure to review Kissed to Death. The main characters are well-fleshed out and minor characters, such as Stefan, are sensitively presented (although I am not sure that Kenny really needs to visit him again in London. I personally thought the phone call was enough and felt a little worried for him). However, Kenny’s growth and maturity are signalled by the empathy he feels for Stefan as well as his appreciation of the kindness he showed him and his help in getting him off the streets. I enjoyed following the journeys of Gemma and Kenny and I liked the realistic way some secrets are kept intact and a few ends left loose, as in life.
The novel has psychological depth but, above all, is an interesting story and well-told. I love a 1940s background, and will be ordering Gillian Fernandez Morton’s first novel, Bombweed. Can’t wait to read it.
Tina MacNaughton was born and brought up in Portsmouth, a city that means a great deal to her. She now divides her time between Crowthorne, Berkshire, where she works as an acupuncturist, and her seaside flat in Southsea, where she walks, goes to the beach, and writes poetry. She belongs to the Portsmouth Writer’s Hub and Words Out Loud based in Chichester. Her frank poems about menopause and women’s issues have resonated with many readers. A fine collection of Tina’s poetry On the Shoulders of Lions was published by The Choir Press in July 2021. We are proud to have Tina represented on the Portsmouth Literary Map.