This is an unsentimental account of a child with profound disabilities growing up and coming of age in institutions in the 1950s and 60s, and then finally settling into what is called `supported living'. It also details the impact that her disability has on her family. Grace, the narrator, recounts her story with no holds barred. She doesn't shy from letting us know about the messy practicalities of struggling with bodily functions and physical intimacy. Don't expect some coy or sanitised version of disability.
The physical, sexual and emotional abuse that Grace suffers is described graphically but in a way that is a million miles from the misery memoirs that utilise these things as their stock-in trade. Of course it isn't a genuine memoir though Emma Henderson makes a convincing stab at recreating one in what is, apparently, a creative rendering of the life of her own disabled sister.
The novel's matter-of fact tone renders it all the more powerful. Grace becomes almost inured to the casual cruelty she endures on a daily basis with little expectation of being treated any better, or of others recognising her intelligence or humanity. Fortunately she encounters a small number of people sensitive enough to see beyond her disability and these relationships help sustain her. Movingly, she discovers what it is to love and be loved.
Institutional life inevitably takes its toll on Grace and at times her behaviour appears to others to be challenging and bizarre, but mostly it is borne out of sheer frustration and pain.
In terms of awareness-raising it's a very worthy and worthwhile novel, but is it any good? Yes, thankfully, it is. It is wonderfully descriptive and honest. The language fizzes with originality. I have been reading a lot of well-reviewed new writers recently and Henderson stands out as one of the best. Definitely one to watch. If I have any criticism it is that the memoir format renders it somewhat episodic without a strong narrative drive so it meanders a little weakly towards its conclusion. I wavered between a four and five star rating but on balance I think it deserves a five.
Can I put out a plea to reviewers not to use words like `handicapped' or even worse `retarded' as I have seen in several reviews. This is not a matter of political correctness. Words do matter and have the power to hurt and denigrate people as the novel demonstrates. I am taken aback by the fact that so many people glibly assume that Grace has a learning disability or describe her as `mentally impaired'. On what evidence? Where in the novel does she demonstrate any lack of understanding or limited awareness? Nowhere. Her physical appearance, her inability to articulate more than two words at a time - and often those are unintelligible,- and her drooling and dribbling, so vividly described here, are factors that lead doctors in less enlightened times to diagnose her as `a complete imbecile'. Some readers seem to have taken this at face value even though the medical profession are portrayed with so little credibility. How can you listen to the voice of this clear-sighted, observant, funny, sharp-witted young woman without seeing the intelligence that shines through? Inabilty to communicate does not equate with an inability to think and reason. Some people even seem sceptical that someone like Grace could tell her story so eloquently. Why?
Grace Williams says it loud but it seems not loud enough for some readers.