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Meet Grace; it's her book. Grace feels real, so despite this being a fictitious piece of writing, I felt the whole time like I was reading an autobiography. Grace was born in 1946 and Grace is a'spazzo', 'a retard' or 'mental' depending on who is insulting her at the time. But Grace is also a daughter, a sister, a friend, a lover and a patient. What this book does in such a profound way is to make you question and try to understand the relationships that Grace has with her family and the community in which she is brought up in. The author appears to have a deep understanding of how Grace would have thought and behaved.
For the first one hundred pages, I struggled; I couldn't quite connect with Grace and I didn't understand the environment that she was living in. From page 101 I suddenly seemed to get it and from that point I was hooked and became absorbed in Grace's life as gradually you are drip fed more information that helps to piece together who she is and where she is. So do persevere, it really is worth it in the end and I'm sure that like me you will learn an awful lot about what life was like in the latter part of the last century for people with physical and mental disabilities.
The book covers a period of time between 1947 and 1987. The very first entry is just four lines from 1987 and I have to say I wish it wasn't there. It's a real spoiler, but as it is there I guess there's no harm in telling you too. Grace is being told that Daniel, her best friend, lover and soul mate is dead. Now, I would prefer to have read the book not knowing this and waiting for the sad ending to happen - I would have been hoping for a happy ever after and the ending would have been complete shocker.
Otherwise the 325 pages of the book are in chronological order and are divided into sections covering a period of time with each section divided into shorter chapters. Some of the chapters are quite long and I think that this contributed to me struggling to get to grips with it at the beginning. I like to read a chapter with each sitting, but as they were so long I had to stop part way through and then forgot what I'd read and had to re-read sections to re-cap.
So, at eight months old and lying out on the rug at home with her mother and watching her older sister, Miranda and brother John, play, we first meet Grace. The first indication that there is something wrong with her is when we learn that tomorrow she will have her long lolling tongue clipped. We're quickly into Christmas 1956 and Grace is hanging in the swing in the doorway that she hates but her mother thinks 'makes her feel part of things'. Brother John is quoted as saying 'There were millions of eggs in Mother's ovaries. Why was Grace the rotten one?' This sounds mean and it is clear that the family are struggling with having a disabled daughter, but Grace also drops snippets into the story that show that John also loved and protected her, such as when she was being bullied by 2 boys who were calling her 'Spazzo' and threatening to push her pram in the river. He fought for her defending her as his sister and ended up in the river himself.
Over that Christmas lunch Grace has a fit and this appears to be the final straw for the family and especially pregnant Mum. The main body of the book then commences in 1957 when the eleven year old Grace, who appears to have Cerebral Palsy and also has a hemiplegic left arm (that she calls Nelson) and withered leg resulting from having contracted polio at age six, is left at the Briars by her family. I wasn't too sure whether this was a Children's home or hospital for sick children initially, but over time Grace tells us more and more about her experiences in this huge 2000 bed Psychiatric hospital where she moves through life on the children's wards and Children's Occupation unit to the adult female wards and on into Community Care.
There are good times and bad for Grace, but she just recounts them as matter of fact; she does not feel bitter or resent people and ultimately it's clear that The Briars is home to her and she belongs. Some fairly horrendous things happen to her such as having all of her hair cut off as soon as she arrives and not being able to wear her own clothes, even her Christmas presents are stolen by nurses. Even things as horrific as abuse occur. The doctor and dentist seem pretty evil characters. She is so accepting of everything and everyone and doesn't seem too perturbed by her family who visit and then leave again.
On the other hand we learn of examples of great kindness and tenderness from Miss Blackburn, her teacher and lovely Miss Lily and kind Nurse Jameson and later Carole, her community support worker. There are real happy times that she remembers such as holidays and the fete. But the most important person to Grace is the first person to befriend her, Daniel Smith. It is really touching to read about their feelings for each other and how their relationship develops. They seem to discover sex at a very young age and I especially love the following quote that Grace wrote after a night away together 'we christened that chilly bed the love-bed because we loved in it so silly much' and how she talks about them 'canoodling'. She is moving into adulthood in such an innocent and childish way.
Daniel is another very endearing person and is the second main character in the book. He was born with severe epilepsy, a funny shaped head and dangly legs. In a car accident he lost both arms and suffered brain damage. He is half French and a real debonair gentleman. He obviously loves Grace just as much as she loves him and plans to escape from the Briars and come back to rescue Grace. The photograph on the cover shows the two of them sitting huddled together looking over the sea - a real loving couple, but with Grace's dress not properly fastened and flapping open at the back it cleverly portrays their inability to look after themselves in the real world.
As a student Occupational Therapist(OT) in the late 1980s I worked for a short while in a large Mental Health hospital shortly before it closed in favour of Care in the Community. I worked partly in a unit for people who had lived long term in the hospital and would have been similar to Grace and Daniel. Grace went to OT as she was not up to working, so I was able to visualise to an extent the kind of groups she may have attended such as Social Skills training and cooking skills. I was aware of no instances of abuse or unkindness, but the patients did mostly live in large ward areas, but had quite a bit of freedom to use the grounds and they all smoked and many had a history of having had ECT treatment. Smoking was used as a reward for good behaviour and as bribery for Grace from the age of 14, which sounds horrendous and she was submitted to ECT and its after effects. The Briars appears to have lots of grounds with an orchard and Grace seemed very content wandering in these.
At the end of the book I eagerly awaited authors' notes or discussion points, but there were none. A book that makes you think as much as this one would benefit from a formal discussion forum. I was left wondering what the authors' personal experience was and whether it is based on any fact from the history of her personal life or if she has researched it all. Written in the first person and past tense it is such a convincing read that I was sure that she must feel very deeply about the subject matter so I googled her to see if I could find out more and discovered that she does indeed have very personal experience. Her older sister Clare was brought up from the age of eleven in a Mental institution and lived there for 35 years. The article I read concludes with the following quote
'I could never know Clare's experience of being lost for 35 years in a mental hospital. But I could imagine it, and that's what I do in my novel. I invent a life story for someone who scarcely had one and I make it a conventional yet exceptional love story. It's fiction with autobiographical elements, and it challenges my childhood lie, as loud as possible.'
I wish the book had included something like this to help me to understand the background.
The book is described on the cover as compelling, mesmerizing and exuberant and a deeply affecting, spirit soaring story of love against the odds. I have to agree - it is an exceptional piece of writing which has left me thinking very hard about what life was like in the big institutions and comparing it to more recent accommodation of people with physical, mental and learning difficulties. Above all it emphasizes that these people are individuals with feelings and the capacity to have relationships, at no matter what level. I hope that they are now treated with dignity and respect and not as objects, but I wonder if this is really the case and has society moved forwards?
This review also appears on ciao under my same user name, MelissaRuth. Thanks for reading.