The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman by Julietta Henderson

Prepare to fall head over heels for Norman! If ever there were a book to lift your spirits, soothe your soul, and restore your faith in humanity, then here it is …

If you’re after a heart-warming book filled to the brim with hope and humanity, then Julietta Henderson’s charming The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman should be your next read . . . A life-affirming tale.

what it says on the cover …

Norman and Jax are a legendary comedic duo in waiting, with a five-year plan to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe by the time they’re fifteen. But when Jax dies before they turn twelve, Norman decides a tribute act for his best friend just can’t wait, so he rewrites their plan: 

1. Look after mum
2. Find Dad
3. Get to the Edinburgh Fringe

Sadie knows she won’t win Mother of the Year and she’s not proud she doesn’t know who her son’s father is. But when she finds Norman’s list, all she wants is to see her son smile again… So they set off on a pilgrimage to Edinburgh, making a few stops to find Norman’s dad along the way.

The Funny Thing about Norman Foreman is an inspiring, feel-good novel about a small boy with a big heart – and even bigger dreams. 

PUBLISHED: 29th April 2021
SHELF: Fiction | Humour
AUTHOR: Julietta Henderson
PUBLISHER: Bantam Press
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle | AudioBook

I named my son Norman because there was nobody to tell me not to. And because I liked it. That could have been my first mistake and, who knows, maybe I would have listened if someone had told me that Charlie or Harry or Freddie might be a lighter load for a kid to swing on his back and carry around for an entire lifetime.

my review

The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman is an achingly tender story with a complexity that’s beguiling; it’s heart-wrenching and yet gloriously life-affirming.  If you take the back-cover blurb at face value then this is a book about a young boy travelling to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe as a tribute to his friend, Jax. But there is so much more going on beneath the surface. Don’t let its seemingly gentle simplicity fool you, this story will give each and every one of your emotions a rigorous workout.  It’s a soul-soother of a book; one that bursts with the most exceptional treasures and supremely lovable characters … both living and passed.

There’s something distinctly friendly and welcoming about the writing style.  The chapters are narrated either by Norman or by Sadie, and their voices, thoughts and personalities shine out of the pages.  They create the impression of immediate familiarity, which only added to my overwhelming urge to scoop them both up into a hug, make them cheese on toast with a cup of tea, and spend the day watching television with them. And although there’s no Jax to draw into that hug, both Norman and Sadie made sure he was never far from my imagination with their own recollections … stories, anecdotes, remembered habits of this remarkable boy who made such an enormous impression on both their lives. The chemistry of their friendship infuses the book from the very first chapter to the last, and although Jax has left this world, his character is as much a part of this story as Norman’s.  

At just twelve years of age, Norman is determined to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe, partly to fulfil the five-year plan he made with Jax, but also to follow in the footsteps of his late standup-comedian granddad.  It’s fair to say that as a quiet, sensible boy, Norman didn’t strike me as a natural for the stage, but with Jax by his side they made quite the comedy duo.  Norman’s mum, Sadie, loves seeing her beautify boy shine with confidence in Jax’s company, but her worries for Norman alone on stage have deeper roots than she’s really come to terms with.

Norman’s original plan with Jax was quite simple: 1) Get to the Edinburgh Fringe, baby! 2) Get famous 3) Get rich.  But with each day that passes after Jax’s death, Norman steadily becomes a shadow of the boy he once was, making for some chapters that had me unashamedly sobbing. We experience this loss both through Norman’s eyes and through Sadie’s, and whilst they both affected me quite deeply, I think it was Sadie’s account that had the most profound impact as she witnessed her son’s heartbreaking decline. Not long after Jax’s funeral, Sadie notices the five-year plan – devoutly blu-tacked to Norman’s bedroom wall for years – has been altered.  It now reads, 1) Look after Mum, 2) Find Dad, 3) Get to the Edinburgh Fringe. 

Sadie has brought Norman up alone from the very day he was born … from the very day he was conceived in all honesty.  He is her ray of hope, and their close bond is a joy to follow throughout the book.  Sadie became pregnant when she was at university in Edinburgh, in the midst of a self-destructive cycle of her own following the death of her beloved father. Seeing the change to Norman’s plan was quite a shock, forcing her to revisit her own past and confront her own, long-avoided grief.

This is the point a new character enters the story; the disarmingly gung-ho Leonard.  Just when I thought my heart was completely filled by Norman, Sadie and Jax, along came Leonard who, as it happens, is every bit as lovable. Leonard is a clearer in the used-car dealership where Sadie works, both united in their mutual dislike of the odious owner, Dennis Pearl.  When Sadie pours her heart out about Norman’s struggles, and his desire to find his father, Leonard springs into action.  He may be an octogenarian but he’s remarkably savvy, thanks to a rather intense attendance at the local adult-learning evening classes.  Almost overnight, Leonard creates a name and marketing materials for Norman’s act (Little Big Man), establishes a Facebook presence, and tracks down the four men who could be Norman’s father.  Two weeks later, the eclectic trio set off from Penzance, heading for Edinburgh in Leonard’s immaculate 1971 Austin Maxi … via Barnstaple, Swansea and Bournemouth.

The journey becomes a vehicle (honestly, no pun intended there) for the most sublime character development, as well as driving (pun intended this time) the plot forwards through the highs and lows of Norman’s quest to fulfil The Plan.  Each stop-off point introduces a new character as Sadie braves some rather awkward reunions.  After an initial knock-back from Dan McFartfeatures-Poo-Bottom (one of Norman’s brilliant names for Barnstaple dad), I couldn’t help feeling Norman was blessed to have three quirky, imperfect, but eminently likeable dad options.  It shines a light on the best, and worst, of human nature (mostly the best, truth be told) but always in a way that keeps the subject light and engaging. Let’s not forget that at the heart of this story is a young boy with a love of comedy, so no matter how weighty the topic may be, you’ll struggle to get through most pages without at least one laugh-out-loud.  

It would be fair to describe the Edinburgh chapters as eventful.  In any other context, the combination of calamities would be borderline OTT, but the over-arching comedy theme coupled with Norman’s talent for observational soliloquy create the perfect backdrop for his   highly-anticipated act; Little Big Man.  

As characters go, both Norman and Sadie – and Jax, for that matter – have been created and written with remarkable care.  They are a reader’s dream to get to know, and felt as familiar to me as if I’ve known them for years.  Whilst I am full of love for each of them, their insecurities and imperfections keep the story humble and nicely grounded. 

The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman is a sensitive study of grief and adversity, kindness and recovery.  As the story unfolds it challenges the reader to question what truly constitutes ‘family’, and examines the multi-faceted nature of unlikely friendships. It confronts loss with the bravery and unique wisdom of a child that will be the undoing of even the hardest heart.

I urge you to take this treasure of a story to heart, and take time to really think about all the uplifting messages it carries. Give in to the myriad of emotions and let yourself fall head over heels for Norman, Jax and Sadie … you’ll carry their story with you for a very long time, and I’m confident you’ll develop a serious case of mentionitis for this book. Oh, and one last thing … the little flip-book style image of Norman pulling his wheelie case across the bottom of every page is an inspired touch.

Thank you to Transworld Books for sending me an ARC of The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman in return for an honest, impartial review. And thanks also NetGalley for approving my request for a digital copy! There’s no such thing as too many books!

julietta henderson

Julietta Henderson grew up in the rainforests of North Queensland, and developed her passion for the written word producing ‘magazines’ for school friends and neighbours with her sister. She has worked her way through jobs as diverse as bicycle tour guide in Tuscany, nanny in the Italian Alps and breakfast waitress in the wilds of Scotland. Like many Australians, her love affair with Europe began when she came to London and stayed for more than a decade.

Now a full-time writer, Julietta divides her life between Melbourne, the UK and wherever else she can find winter. 

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