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!!)
7 thoughts on “Book Club 9 – Grace Williams Says It Loud”
The psychological concept of “closure” as part of popular psychology was first discussed in the European Journal of Social Psychology and therefore isn't necessarily American (nor is it horrible, at its root, as a concept, but that's not my point here).
“American” is not a catch-all term to describe things you find naff or unpleasant. If you find the concept of “closure” to be simplistic, dangerous, or just plain stupid, then say so, and explain why. Use your own words and thoughts, not a stereotype. I'm American and I would never dream of describing something I dislike as a “horrible English concept” (with the possible exception of Gregg's Sausage Rolls). Casual anti-Americanism is one of the only things that makes my life here in the UK less than perfect. It grates after a while, you know?
Apologies – I did not mean to offend.
This was meant to evoke the concept as it is most used in television shows – frequently from your country of origin – in the absense of futher explanation or context and was not intended to be viewed as insulting or racist.
It was lazy writing.
As a non-national living in this country; I often encouter casual racism. I don't think that the phrasing was intended as offensive – for me – I knew exactly what was being described.
Are you the first Anonymous, or the second? Please do use a name, not necessarily your own, but just a name, as otherwise it gets very confusing!
Obviously I would have to comment…..
I’m really upset that I missed the discussion of this book as I seem to have made conclusions that are polar opposites to the majority of book clubbers. It was, to me, the most enjoyable book club read so far.
I find it hard to believe that anyone would try to “cash-in” on the hardships of their siblings and family, to make such an assessment, to me, seems to be a grave slur on the author’s character. I also disagree with the description of the hospital as an “asylum”. I feel this gives very different connotations to the reality in which Grace lived.
Whilst it is easy to make the assumption that she does, I don't agree that Grace had severe mental disadvantages; the only people who tell us this are the medics, who in terms of the depictions in the book are hardly the most reliable sources. To say Grace was mentally disabled to me misses the point – that she was in fact an incredibly articulate and engaged individual trapped by the failings of her own body. Emma Henderson, when talking about her sister makes clear that anyone who knew Claire for any period of time was acutely aware of the fact that she was very much conscious of everything going on around her. To me the fact that Grace had difficulty speaking meant she was far more observant and perceptive than most. Moreover I felt Grace’s narrative was very much shaped by her experiences, she was put in a hospital at a young age yet drew comparisons to the life she knew before. I often found myself feeling like Grace wasn’t quite being truthful or giving the whole story in order to put a positive spin on her experiences as a coping mechanism. I think this is easy to misinterpret as Grace being simple and unable to understand the full extent of what is happening to her. However, I don’t feel this is the case at all. For example, where at the end of the book Grace tells us she does not believe Daniel is dead, but running a market stall in France and will come get her as soon as he can I think she is fully aware of the reality but instead chooses to believe in the fantasy, keeping her faith in Daniel.
For me one of the most interesting and complex characters was Grace’s mother, a women clearly suffering from post-natal depression with no support from society. I felt that the scene where Grace’s mother tries to smother her was so beautifully crafted into the narrative, so easy to not pick up on what was happening at all yet completely heart wrenching. I also felt this went some way to explain the reasoning why Grace’s family were so removed, that it was too difficult emotionally to visit her.
I completely disagree that the book was “a graphic representation of misery” as to me it was completely inspiring. Grace, whether wilfully or otherwise, chose to find happiness despite the terrible things that happened in her everyday life. She never wallowed in misery. No matter how bad things got Grace found ways to keep herself going – showing immense strength. I felt this was true of many of the patients and particularly the “crazy fitters”. These were people written off by society and subjected to the most degrading circumstances and yet there was a real sense kinship.
I really could go on and on about this book, there were so many beautiful and life affirming moments and I wish I could better express the enthusiasm I have for it. I found Grace to be witty, insightful and funny. I never felt this was a trudge through misery instead I found it to be an inspirational story drawn together by an exquisitely crafted narrative.
Just feel I ought to point out that some members FELT that the author had appropriated the story – as stated in the blog.
At no point did we slur the character of the author.
If, as a book club, we cannot reflect on our feelings honestly and openly without fear of judgement – to then be reflected in the write up – then I think the scope of the book club would be too limited to be enjoyable for anyone.
I totally agree that we should be able to give honest opinions about the books we read and whilst I understand that this was how some members felt my gut reaction to this comment was that it was a particularly harsh criticism of the author. All authors put their own 'spin' on experiences, this author choose to put a spin on a subject close to home. If Emma Henderson did not write from her own experiences would we have made the criticism that she simply didn't know what she was writing about? Personally I read the book without the knowledge that Henderson based the book on her sister. However when I found out this was the case I didn't feel like she had used this to her own advantage, the thought quite simply never crossed my mind. I'm this sure the comment was not meant in this way and I was not trying to offend or criticise the other book clubbers, I was simply expressing my own opinion in reaction to the comments made.