Grace Williams is keeping me from sleeping. I put down this Orange shortlisted novel, Grace Williams Says it Loud, some hours ago, seriously impressed by Henderson’s literary debut and unsurprised that such a finely drawn novel had reached the Orange shortlist. It is utterly convincing in its presentation of time, place and character. Or is it?
Grace’s world and her life feel compellingly real and accurate. Her family, her fellow residents and the staff at the institution The Briar, in which she is placed as a child, are introduced and developed with apparent ease, and I recognised them all. I felt I sat on the bed with her mother and Grace as she held in her hands the balance of all their futures. I cried for her brother when in trying to retain some order and normality he removes Grace from the fragmenting home and is faced only with the cruelty of the outside world.
But though I was there at Grace’s side as she traversed a spectrum of experience, from brutal and inhumane neglect and abuse at the hands of (some of) the institution staff, to the adventure and exploration she shared with her soul mate and fellow patient Daniel, and though I felt it all, I did not feel it deeply. And I believe that dislocation and distance was the result of Grace’s first person narrative.
Grace is physically and mentally disabled. In her ‘real’ life she is unable to communicate beyond two-word constructs but Henderson (whose elder sister was disabled and institutionalised) gives her a voice, and an eloquent one at that. This is an empowering act, the author giving character to someone who could represents an unheard section of society, voice. So, why my struggle with this voice? Who is to say how Grace would have thought? What form her internal monologues would have taken? As a reader I am certain I have accepted more challenging conceits. And isn’t this a story I wanted to hear told?
I spent the first years of my life in the home for ‘Mentally and Physically Handicapped Children’ which my dad ran. Without siblings, children like Grace were my companions, along side them I learnt to speak. I found my voice whilst many of them never could or would find theirs despite receiving all the care, attention and stimulation that patients in The Briar did not. Amid all the fits and fights and piss and shit, I had one particular friend. Her speech was limited to echolalia (which Grace is suspected of having) but despite this we got along well. Most of the time. Occasionally though, my friend would become completely out of reach, all connection would vanish and she would rock into her self or lash out at me. She couldn’t express what was going on in her head. We were divided from each other by her frustration. And even though Henderson has given Grace the words that my friend never had, it is frustration I feel now. Her narration is matter of fact, unsentimental and without a trace of self pity. For some perhaps this makes it an uplifting read, Grace becomes a figure of hope, a survivor rather than a victim. For me however, though the narrative worked to present Grace as a person rather than a list of disabilities, it somehow kept me one step removed. But maybe that was the point, that even with words this was Grace’s reality.
I, for one, will be watching out for Emma Henderson’s future work and will be prepared for the challenge it may present me with. And also, perhaps, a little lost sleep.