I'm reeling a bit. I've just finished two books in a row that have people with disabilities, differences as not only primary characters, but as narrators. I read them, accidentally, in probably the best order though I'm not sure it matters. What's astonishing about the books is that they were written in different centuries but document the social phenomenon of disphobia and disablism - occurring in much the same fashion.
Both books have female leads and both books treat their subjects with kindness but not reverence. They are fully formed people, all of them, they react to their disabilities in similar ways and they grow wary of a world that cannot see them as fully human. They stand apart, and this perspective allows them to comment on the human condition in bold new ways. I'm being very cautious in what I say because I hate when I read spoilers that give away plot points.
I hereby challenge those readers of Chewing the Fat who are up to it, to take on both books and then give commentary. I'd love to hear your opinions. Here are the books:
Precious Bane by Mary Webb first published in 1924
An amazing story but a difficult read. I wouldn't have made it through the book if I hadn't fallen head over heels in love with Prue Sarn the primary character. Prue was borne with a 'hare lip' and as such was deemed an outsider, a witch, the devils consort. But the book really focuses on her relationship with her brother and mother and then her falling for a beautiful man, a weaver. The story documents her longing to be held and touched by this man, her knowing it wasn't possible, that the mark of difference on her face kept her from beauty - thus desirability. What makes this book hard to read is that it's written in the language of the times and the patois of North Shropshire in England. The spelling is difficult, it took me awhile to figure out the 'enow' was 'enough' and there are hundreds of these words. But by the host of heaven, the story did catch me and I had to find out what happened to Prue.
The book has an introduction by then Prime Minister of England, Stanley Baldwin. I beg you not to read this till the end. I read it part way through and was horrified to find that Balwin gives away a huge bit of the story - I was furious and warn you off the introduction.
The Girls by Lori Lansens published 2006
This is the story of two sisters, conjoined twins. The book is written primarily by the character of Rose but with chapters from Ruby. It's impossible to read this book and remember that it's fiction. The characters are so whole, so rich and so complex. There are several 'put the book down and swoon' moments, which I'd love to tell you but I'm using that restraint the doctor always suggests that I use more often. The overlap with Prue's story, in descriptions of public reaction are disturbing, this is almost a century later. Surely we'd learn. Surely.
The girls were adopted by an amazing couple and their mother told them that in every ordinary life is an extraordinary story. What's amazing here is to find that in an extraordinary life is an ordinary story. These women, though attached, become separate in your mind. These women, though different, become singularly human.
These books represent the best of what can be found in 'disability literature' if there is such a thing. The characters are not used by the author's they are served by them. Each book ends beautifully. I will always remember the last line of Precious Bane. It chills me and warms me even at the mention of it here.
I am truly grateful to have found these books, truly grateful to have had the opportuntity to meet and spend time with Prue, Ruby and Rose.