This moving and thought-provoking novel by Emma Henderson introduces us to a girl called Grace Williams. Grace was born with severe disabilities and a childhood case of polio only makes things worse. When she is eleven years old, her parents send her to the Briar Mental Institute, a residential home for disabled people. Unfortunately it’s the 1950s, a less enlightened time than today, but Grace is lucky in that she does meet a few people at The Briar who can see past her disabilities and who offer her friendship and love. One of these is Daniel Smith, a boy who has problems of his own – he suffers from epilepsy and has also lost both of his arms in an accident. But although life at The Briar is not easy, Grace and Daniel form a relationship that helps to sustain them both.
Grace comes across as an observant, funny, loving young woman trapped by her own inability to communicate and her physical appearance, both of which lead to her being dismissed and shunned by society. But the fact that Grace’s narrative voice is so clear and articulate shows that she is not lacking in intelligence and awareness. She doesn’t have a problem understanding what other people are saying; she just finds it hard to express herself verbally, always responding in sentences of no more than two words (“me too” or “yes, please”). And yet because of her limited speech many people assume she’s not able to follow a conversation – and so they talk about her as if she wasn’t a human being with feelings, as if she wasn’t even there, which is all very sad.
Even sadder are the reactions of Grace’s family – the shame and frustration of her parents, the matter of fact way in which her little sister, Sarah, tells a friend that she has ‘two sisters but one of them doesn’t count’ (a scene which really broke my heart). Other bloggers have mentioned that Emma Henderson explained in her author’s note how this and other episodes of the story were based on her own memories and experiences of having a sister who, like Grace, spent many years in an institution. I’m disappointed that my copy of the book didn’t include this note from the author as I would have liked to have known about the inspiration behind the story.
The descriptions of the way the Briar residents were treated by their nurses and teachers are shocking. Although there were a few who did show some kindness and compassion, many of the others were cruel, unkind and displayed a complete lack of interest in even trying to understand the people they were supposed to be caring for. Unfortunately some went even further, abusing their positions of authority and taking advantage of the vulnerable people under their care. As you can imagine, some parts of the book are emotionally quite difficult and uncomfortable to read, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bleak and depressing book because it’s really not. However hard things may be for Grace, there are still positive things in her life – the most important of these being her friendship with Daniel.
I really loved the character of Daniel: intelligent, caring, full of hope and optimism. And yet he does still have moments where everything becomes too much for him. He has a very sad and tragic story of his own, a story which moved me in a way that even Grace’s didn’t. Although Grace is the narrator and central character of the book, I never felt quite the same connection with her that I did with Daniel.
I can’t say I loved this book, but I’m glad I read it and I know it’s not a story that will be easily forgotten. I’m sure the things I’ve read will stay with me for years to come. So if you’d like to know what Grace Williams has to say, then pick up a copy of this book and find out.