Many of the novels on this year’s Orange shortlist seem to concern themselves with questions of voice and identity: in Annabel, Wayne struggles to find a means to express his own conflicted, suppressed interiority; in The Memory of Love, a nation’s unspeakable pain is spoken, is brought to difficult life for an unattentive wider audience; and in Room, of course, Emma Donoghue embeds us within the perspective of a child who has only ever known a single, enclosed square space.
Grace Williams Says It Loud, Emma Henderson’s debut novel, shares this broad interest in voiceless voices, and is closest to Room in its approach. Grace is a mentally and physically disabled young woman, born in 1947 and placed in a residential home at the age of 11, at the behest of doctorly opinion. Throughout the book, she speaks only in two-syllable sentences, her tongue a lolling, unresponsive muscle which lies disobedient in a mouth unable to form the shapes necessary to enunciate Grace’s vowels. Henderson’s conceit, of course, is to make Grace garrulous: her narrative voice is full of rhythm and pitch, alive to pop culture and poetry, replete with refrains and alive to allusion.
The tragedy of the book, and of Grace, is that this voice is silent. Indeed, it is impossible – Grace couldn’t really write this novel, and Henderson’s canny manoeuvre is to foreground the novelist’s necessary lie that any stripe of person could express their story in ways so luminous and coherent. This makes Grace Williams Says It Loud quite a sly book with language its principal theme: whether during the home’s French lessons, whilst having a book about disabilities read to her (“They call us ugly, but at least they give our deformities beautiful names” [pg. 129]), or listening to the lists composed by her only friend and eventual lover, the double amputee epileptic Daniel, Grace is constantly confronted by the gaps between words, the things they signify, and the way they’re used. Language is for her an impossible obstacle, a transparent wall without purchase or escape route. That the novel form provides us with a route into her vibrant inner life can merely dramatise this catastrophe.
Grace is treated with little love or consideration even by her own family: her own sister, who though physically perfect is no more the master of her selfish, sulky moods than the frustrated and occassionally angry Grace, says she smells; her parents, meanwhile, drive her to the abuse-ridden home in the first place. The staff are even worse: from the habitual sexual assaults of the resident dentist (“I’d have bitten it off, that dick, if I’d still had my teeth” [pg. 128]) to the casual sadism of the nursing staff (“I licked the shit from the wet enamel of the nurses’ toilet” [pg. 163]), Grace is dehumanised and brutalised with shocking and unremitting consistency. “The patient has considerable sensory impairment,” sniffs one doctor. “In the course of today’s physical examination, I detected a greatly diminished sense of pain, indeed of any feeling.” [pg. 29] We say this about fish so we feel better about hooking them.
If all this makes the novel sound something of a fictive misery memoir, then it is probably guilty as charged. Even Grace and Daniel’s love affair – the one aspect of romance and tenderness in Grace’s life – is signalled from the first page to be doomed (“When Sarah told me Daniel had died” are the novel’s first words), whilst the minimal representation of opinion opposed to the depicted mental health consensus of the 50s, 60s and 70s (“some of them have the most plastic, malleable, marvellous, minds,” insists one teacher [pg. 125]) are so feint and compromised, and so few and far between, that the darkness of Grace’s predicament is not lifted. This is not, in and of itself, a problem: no doubt Henderson’s own experience with her institutionalised sister, Claire, has informed this presentation of the home, and no doubt lives in such places really were relentless and grim. But it does mean that as a novel this story lacks a through-line; its momentum is simply its episodic litany of degradation, and the only forward-pull is Grace’s own voice.
Many reviews of this novel praise that voice – and, as noted above, it is undoubtedly a smart piece of play and a quite concerted effort of prose. At the same time, if the voice did not fail me then I must have failed the voice. Grace, alas, did not make it off the page for me; her great virtue – that she is non-judgemental, that she not just resists but seems never to consider bitterness or resentment – also means that even her narration feels at times as if it is at rest. The front cover of my copy shows two young people watching a calm, still sea; reading Grace Williams Says It Loud sometimes feels very much like that. Its message of empathy and its insistence on shared humanity and common feeling is laudable, and in many ways its conscious games with form avoid the pitfalls of Emma Donoghue’s more literal capture of voice in Room. But that latter novel is at least never less than a page-turner.
I feel perhaps that Henderson deserves a rather better review than this may seem. Nevertheless, I rather think the prize tonight should go to one of either The Memory of Love or Great House. After winning the Youth Prize, though, Donoghue is the favourite. I’m not sure this would reflect the strength of a shortlist much more considered than both my own and Victoria Hoyle’s demons might find Room.
EDIT: So The Tiger’s Wife won. My feeling is that it would thoroughly deserve a first novel gong, but that it may be out-written by The Memory of Love. I can see the case for it against Great House – Krauss’s novel lacks light and shade, preferring an overall mood to tonal variation – but Forna’s book felt to this reader at least more incisive, and more meaty, than Obreht’s. Congratulations to her, though – she’s now a writer with huge momentum.