Author: Emma Henderson, 2010.
Genre: Period Fiction. Mental Health. Coming-of-Age.
Other Details: Paperback. 336 pages.
The second book I read from the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction short-list was this remarkable début novel that charts the life of Grace Williams, a severely physically and mentally disabled girl born in post-WWII Britain. At the age of eleven the doctors tell her parents that nothing further can be done and advise them to put her away, which they do. On her first day at the Briar Mental Institute, Grace meets Daniel and they become close friends. Daniel is a debonair young man, an epileptic who is able to type with his feet. He fills Grace's head with tales from Paris and the world beyond.
This is a beautiful, heart-breaking novel that at times was quite difficult to read given some of the events that take place but I am so glad I did. These instances are only part of the story and throughout there is warmth, humour and a powerful affirmation of the human spirit. My overall impression was of love: from Grace's family and some of her fellow patients but most especially from the central love story between Grace and the sweet Daniel.
From its opening dedication to the late Clare Henderson, I had wondered if Emma Henderson was writing this story from personal experience. When I finished it I did a quick on-line search that revealed that her older sister had been institutionalized for decades and now, some years after her death, Emma was seeking to give Clare a voice through the vehicle of fiction.
"How many brothers and sisters have you got?"
"Two brothers and two sisters, but one of them doesn’t count."
That’s what I used to say, as a child, about my sister. Defective, deficient, physically handicapped, mentally subnormal. Those words whirled in my head, but so did the grim semi-silence that met my questions about the sister who lived in a mental hospital, which we visited, and which terrified me. - Article from 'The Daily Mail'.
Emma Henderson had done an superb job with her research into large institutes such as Briar and conveying the slow changes in mental health services and attitudes towards those with mental illness and/or who are differently-abled over the decades. While it didn't win the Orange Prize, it is being considered for the 2011 MIND Book of the Year and also is featured on the 2011 Channel 4 Summer Book Club. Currently it is only available as an import outside of the UK, but hopefully that will change as its reputation grows.
Orange New Writers Page on 'Grace Williams Says It Loud'