Hindsight is a wonderful thing sometimes, and in the case of me and books it’s proving to be somewhat of a wonder above all wonders and a new way to write about the books I read. You see after I first read ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’, the debut novel by Emma Henderson which is now shortlisted for The Orange Prize this year, I thought that it was a very good book. The more time I have had away from it, letting it weave its magic after the turning of the final page, the more and more brilliant I have thought it is.
I think the most simplistic way of trying to describe ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ would be to call it both a melancholic tale and hopeful one of love and life in the face of obstacles. That might sound a bit pretentious but if I were to embody the book in one sentence that is how I would do so. Grace Williams is born disabled, or as she refers to herself ‘a spastic’, both physically and mentally in 1947. This was a time when the world, including those who love her, weren’t of the understanding and acceptance that we are today. After several years of seeing doctors and hoping for the best, when Grace’s mother becomes pregnant with her fourth child a decision is made (though it could be that both things just happened to coincide) that Grace should go and live in ‘The Briars’ mental institute. It is here that she meets the boy who is set to become the love of her life, Daniel, one day at playtime.
“I bit Daniel’s leg at playtime when he knelt and tried to steal the car I’d taken from the toy box. I was lying on my side, on the floor – a fish in the bottom of a bucket – curling and unfurling my limbs. I didn’t see Daniel coming. His bare skin felt, smelt and tasted rough and homely, like old bread. Daniel bit back, on my bad arm, but it didn’t hurt. It was more suck than bite. More kiss. More please.”
I have to say in the initial two parts I was feeling rather heartbroken, we are given an enormous clue that Emma Henderson is going to break our hearts in the end from the very first page as it is, but there is a rather melancholic tone as we learn Graces past – how her parents, siblings and even Grace herself come to terms with the situation that they are in. For example when the decision is made to send Grace to Briars, as I mentioned above, you are never quite sure if the doctors had suggested this before her mother was pregnant or if it was due to that, which adds a question mark in your mind going forward and makes you wonder about everyone’s motives. There is one scene involving Grace and her mother which comes from nowhere and had my jaw hitting the floor. Its this sinking in of the situation and its problems and possibilities that I found rather fascinating and the way Grace takes it all in so normally, even though some of it is hurtful and heartbreaking, like its just the way life is – making the reader feel empowered by her in a way whilst also feeling utterly horrified.
“Bedtime, playtime, poo-time. You-time, me-time, teatime. Bread before cake. You before me. Bread and butter sprinkled with pink, sugary hundreds and thousands. Boiled egg and Marmite fingers. Soldiers, said John. Chicken and egg. There were millions of eggs in Mother’s ovaries, he said. Why was Grace the rotten one?”
From here the story goes on, into the third and longest part of the book, and things become both much worse and much better. We have tales of the attitudes from the nurses to these children, not good ones; there are deaths, disappearances, cruelty and sexual abuse. Just when you are feeling utterly heartbroken thankfully Henderson adds hope in the form of Daniel, though his tale is triumphant initially we learn there is dark there too, and a rare few nurses and teachers at Briars. They are few and far between but they seem to give the book some rays of light and stop it from becoming a novel that just leaves you feeling miserable and nothing more, something I can find rather lazy and had Henderson only highlighted the awful I might not have responded in the emotive way I did oddly enough. There is dark and light in life and there is in this book, it doesn’t mean those two polar opposites have to be equal.
“’It’s ridiculous.’ Mr Maitland, in the lobby outside the classroom, with Miss Blackburn, was almost shouting. ‘Spastics – sitting exams. Your correspondence simply doesn’t convince.’
‘They may have spastic bodies, Mr Maitland,’ Miss Blackburn replied, ‘but some of them have the most plastic, malleable, marvellous minds I’ve ever come across – in more than twenty years of teaching.’”
I don’t want people thinking that this is a miserable book because its not. In fact Grace’s narrative saves the book from ever being too dark and too gloomy. Oh, I should mention here that one of the aspects of Grace’s varying disabilities means she can only ever communicate two words at once. I loved how Daniel reads between it all with her body language and facial gestures when others can’t. It seems her speech, or lack thereof outwardly, has weirdly been an issue for some readers. It’s almost like because she can’t speak Grace (see I am talking about her like she really exists, a sign of a great book) therefore can’t narrate? Of course she can and it’s the insular aspect of that which worked so well for me, along with her simple acceptance – not to say she doesn’t ever fight against it because she does – that worked incredibly for me and made it so vivid, visceral and emotive a read whilst also making it a strangely hopeful one.
I think ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ is an incredible and rather marvellous novel regardless of it being a debut novel. The passion of the authors experience with disabilities, through her sister Claire, adds a passion to the novel but this is not just a novel told from experience. It’s a novel that lives and breathes; it makes you utterly heartbroken and then laugh out loud. It’s a book that challenges people’s ideas, even if you have the most open of minds this novel will get you thinking outside the box. I can’t really recommend it anymore than that. I initially gave this book a 9/10 but it’s a book I have thought and thought and thought about more and more so I change my mind, this is definitely a 10/10
This book was kindly sent by the publisher.
With the Orange Prize looming in just a few days I have to say its ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ and ‘Annabel’ by Kathleen Winter that I am routing for I would be happy if either of these novels won it. I know I haven’t reported back on some of the long-listed reads, and two I won’t be as with this new hindsight outlook I just don’t haven’t anything exciting or interesting to say about them but the others will come in good time. I simply am not writing about everything in the order I read it anymore and its working because I can be 100% sure I want you to read books like ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ long after the initial flash of ‘just-read-joy’ has waned and the brilliance continues to shine through. I’ll shush now; I have gone on long enough.