Venue: Arcadia Bar
Date: 16th October 2011
Time: 5pm – 7pm
Discussed: Grace Williams Says It Loud – Emma Henderson
Agreed on: Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
I’m treating this like a plaster that urgently needs to be removed. One quick pull and then hopefully I can move on and forget all about it!!
In the build up to the book club; it had become obvious on twitter that while two of our members really really really loved this book; far more of us were less impressed, with one or two of us being unable to read it at all.
Being aware that this was going to be a divisive book, everyone tried to take on board all the other members feelings – resulting in one of the most awkward and stilted conversations ever! Not the ideal!!
Quite a few people enjoyed the writing style. Given that it was a debut novel; many members would definitely read another work by Emma Henderson. The author had a good sense of place – particularly in relation to the scenes set at the seaside. Others found the asylum’s atmosphere – the cloying, lonely, claustrophobic minutia of day to day life captured very effectively.
Structurally; there was a clever tool utilised throughout the book. Time was tracked year by year in chapters of similar length leading up to significant events. From the moment that Daniel left Grace; the chapters seem to shrank; reflecting how her life seemed to shrink.
A few members found several of the characters to be well depicted. Daniel, Robert’s mother and the Major were sympathetic, humorous and kind. The scenes that they were in felt injected with life. The relationship between Daniel and his father also impacted on us positively – it felt real, fitting into the time frame and provided colour, even as we knew that Daniel wasn’t the most reliable of witnesses.
We also enjoyed the two of them visiting Eastbourne. That was sweet.
On the other hand, the majority of book clubbers felt that the book was manipulative; set up so that only the viewpoint of the author was acceptable.
Fundamentally; if the reader did not accept the original conceit – that they narrative provided a valid voice for Grace – this book was never going to engage. Some of us felt that the author had appropriated her sisters life in order to put her own spin on the experience. This made for very uncomfortable reading. Moreover, that the story was told according to an ablest viewpoint – at no point in the narrative did Grace seem to be impacted upon by her SEVERE physical and mental disadvantages. Our lives, experiences and health all impact on the way that we view and fit into our world – this was not taken into account here.
The sad thing is, many of this books harshest critics would have been very interested in actually reading the real story behind this book. A straight story – an actual experience and life – rather than this over the top story.
Many of us were also baffled by a few aspects relating to the primary characters physical situations. Daniel and Grace seemed to have a real and vibrant relationship until you take into account that Grace never actually had a full conversation him. Daniel was depicted as speaking, passing things and walking all at the same time – despite not having any arms.
The family were depicted as very removed. Though they seemed to care about Grace – they never noticed that she never received a single gift from them. They saw her regress further and further the longer that she was in the home, particularly after Daniel left. Then they left her there. They go from being very absent, to taking her on day trips.
The elder siblings are conveniently sent out of the continent. (A few of us wondered how Henderson’s actual family felt about their depiction). The obnoxious, precocious, talented younger sister – who seems to be a clear reflection of the author – only takes notice when Grace appreciates her music. Her introduction as the replacement child, the one without disabilities, suggested to us that this book was written with a degree of survival guilt.
This book is a graphic representation of misery. The phrase misery porn was tossed around a few times, as though it in and of itself provided explanation. It didn’t. The violence and the anguish was gratuitous. It felt as though the author had made a list of every single miserable, horrible, demeaning and debasing event that had taken place in care homes in the time and worked her way through it, determined to include every single one. Many of us have read and enjoyed these so-called misery porn books in the past. However this one was without any sense of redemption. There was no (horrible *catch-all term coming up) closure, no justice, just pain and sadness and grief.
A few of us particularly felt this in relation to Daniel. The end of the book (which divides us up – some liked the Wayne’s World style happy happy ending of her living in another, better home – others found it to be tacky) seemed so pointless. Just more misery piled on to take from any sense of peace achieved by the move from one care home into another.
A final point and then I swear, I’m going to finish. There were those within the group who felt that despite limitations within the book, it did accurately depict the environment of care homes in the 60’s – that the language used, the perceptions of the children and then adults with disabilities was valid and real. Others felt that while some care homes were awful; this book failed to depict any sense of balance. There were no caring characters within the staff of the home (though there was a lovely moment when the matron said that she was proud of the work that she did). There were horrendous homes but there were also people working hard to ensure that conditions were improved. Just not in this book.
Two of our most active and articulate members were rendered utterly silent throughout the entire discussion. They explained that they had nothing to say, no points to offer – they didn’t feel like they had learned or gained anything from the book. It was just something they felt they had to do for the book club.
As the discussion ended, members begged for a cheerful book next month!
Though we had some rather spectacular cake.
And potentially a new member.
*edited to avoid offending.
Suggestions (including our BEST one ever!!)