A stunning debut written with real heart and incredible originality.
This is the book I’ve been most keen to read so far in 2011…in fact it’s probably one of the books I’ve been most excited to read in a long time. When I first read the synopsis I was instantly intrigued, it sounded so original and appealing, I wasn’t wrong.
The story opens in 1947 when Grace is only 8 months old. She’s in a country garden with her mother, father, sister, and brother. The setting of the scene may seem idyllic but without any hesitation Emma Henderson throws the reader into Grace’s world and her life as a physically handicapped young girl. Only a few paragraphs in and Grace is telling her audience about a recent medial experiment where her lolling, problematic tongue is clipped. Grace tells us this in the same frank tone that is used throughout the book and the effects of this style never failed to tug at my emotions.
In 1951 the family move to London and Grace begins telling us more about her beloved mother for whom she shares a richly complex and heartbreaking relationship. She tells us about the trips her and mother take into town together when mother is feeling ‘brave’. It’s here that we start to learn in more the depth the physical deformities Grace suffers. These are touching scenes full of tenderness but also tinged with sadness.
We learn that Grace can’t talk very well; she has been diagnosed mentally defective and after suffering from polio she loses the use of one arm and one leg grows longer than the other.
Skip forward a little and Grace’s health takes a turn for the worse after a worrying fit, she’s taken to hospital and thus the decision is made that Grace must now reside at the Briar, a hospital for disabled and mentally ‘deficent’ individuals.
And so begins Grace’s life at the Briar. A place sometimes filled with happy memories, like hiding in the apple shed with her best friend Daniel or having afternoon tea with the lovely but eccentric Miss Lilly. And holiday’s to beach towns with volunteers like Major Simpson. These are touching and meaningful moments that keep the novel buoyant with glimpses of joy and save it from becoming murky with too much gloom.
However there are also moments of extreme suffering and pain for Grace at the Briar and these were some of the most daring and devastating moments of the book. Henderson touches on themes that I’ve never found portrayed in any book before and I found myself blown away by the content. The book was also highly thought provoking and I know that’s a phrase often banded around but really I began to question everything I’d ever though about mental and physical health problems.
Grace is treated with animosity and often disgust by some of the Dr’s and nurses of the hospital. These moments are often heart rendering and even at times a little hard to digest. But these are frank, honest moments and if the reader feels uncomfortable one can only imagine how Grace must feel.
I don’t want to give too much away about all that happens at the Briar but I will say a little of the heart warming relationship between Daniel and Grace. Daniel is an epileptic and has no arms after an accident. He is intelligent, charming and above enthralled like the reader by Grace. Daniel idolises his ‘debonair’ father, almost mimicking him through his own behaviour.
Between them they overcome their physical and mental short comings. Learning to cuddle and caress with Grace’s one good arm and without the aid of either of Daniels. Perhaps because of this their relationship seems all the more intimate. Both Grace and Daniel look out for each other and their relationship grows and strengthens. But the question is always there, can they, with their very vague futures, every have a happy ever after?
The relationship between Grace and her family is probably one of the most compelling and complex, throwing many questions into the equation. Grace’s mother is tender and caring, clearly a wonderful mother but how should she act now that she has a child with aliments that such little is known about? Nobody has the right answers and everyone is trying to make the right decision.
As a reader we are left wondering what is right. What is the best for Grace? Emma Henderson never imposes heavy opinions or chastises the way in which Grace is treated. Her writing seems to understand that in a time when so little was known about such problems it was never as simple as pointing the blame. There are characters that show extreme kindness and some awful cruelty, but nothing is black and white in Grace’s world.
I won’t say too much about how it all pans out least I should ruin it for you. I will say this though; Grace William’s is throughout charming and extraordinary. Her imagination and prose are beautiful and original, her take on life fresh and innovative. She perceives the world around her with empathy, understanding and a depth that no one thinks her capable of.
Despite struggling with speech Grace Williams certainly does say it loud.
Have you read this book? Or are you interested in reading it? What do you think about it making the short list for the Orange Prize?