Star rating - 7/10
Emma Henderson’s début novel is fresh and very original in its subject matter and narrator, Grace Williams. Born in 1947, and Grace is labelled as a ‘spastic’ and treated as if she has no mental faculties of her own to speak of. But speak she clearly does throughout the book, although her actual spoken dialogue is minimal. She tells the tale as if in flashback to the events and people that shape her life for good and ill.
There are no harsh judgement made of the parents who couldn’t cope and so put Grace in the Briar Mental Institution. Her little sister Sarah is particularly cruel, although in a naive and childish way, although later on in the story she comes to relate to Grace in a very positive and touching manner. Grace suffers appalling sexual abuse at the hands of the Briar’s resident dentist, but she does not define herself by the experience, simply states it as a matter of fact.
The real focus of her story is her love for Daniel, who lost both his arms in an accident, and is also a resident at the Briar. They fall in love and get up to all sorts of mischief. Daniel is an exotic person in that world, with his knowledge of French and his ability to type with his feet, and most of all, his longing to break away from the institution with all its rules and limitations.
In its way this book reminded me of Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’. Grace is a great heroine, who has clear insight into the events that unfold in her life, and an ability to make sense of them in a profound way, despite the extremely low expectations which many other people have of her. She won’t be written off, and her defiance is often very endearing. Henderson has written a clever and refreshing book. It gives a disabled heroine a great part and a loud voice for the reader to hear, even though she is unable to always communicate it as she would like in her life. The pace of the story is perhaps a little uneven in places, but this is a début to take note of, with a very powerful message.