A quietly written, surprising, delight
Rebecca Mascull’s debut novel, first of all, reads nothing like a debut novel. The author writes with subtle, understated assurance this fascinating, alluring story of a deaf-blind girl, in late Victorian England, then later in South Africa during the Boer War.
I have to admit I nearly missed this one, as the combination of publisher blurb and the rather muted pretty cover had me mistakenly convinced that this would be a slightly fey and marshmallow book. Whilst not averse to fey, I don’t do soft-centre that well.
However………never judge……and all that
I’m so pleased I gave this one a try (after being offered a copy for review by the publisher, Hodder)
This is most surely a book ‘about stuff’ and whilst it is very clear Mascull has done much research into the time, place and subject matter of her story, she is a writer who wears that research extremely lightly, and almost instructs the reader subliminally, in a very natural and easy way.
Adeliza Golding is born almost blind, the daughter of a successful Kentish hop farmer and his wife, the only surviving child after a series of miscarriages. She is deeply loved by her sorrowing parents. An early illness leaves her completely blind, and also deaf. By the age of three she is enraged and half-feral. Fortuitously, one of the seasonal hop-picker families, oyster fishers (another seasonal industry) from Whitstable, had a deaf-blind daughter themselves, and had come in contact with a clergyman who was aware of the technique of palm signing. The oldest daughter, Lottie, is the first person to break through Liza’s rage – a rage born not of feebleness or savagery, but of her inability to communicate:
For many years, my deaf-blindness was like a monster from myth. My aim was to overcome it. Every monster has a weakness exploited by the hero to win the day. In my darkest memories, I see my early self as a blind monster crashing through the wilderness. But it was not my disability which kept me there. It was my ignorance. Once I found language, the spell was broken and I assumed human form. One does not need sight and hearing to be fully human, only communication. My lack of sight and hearing were not the enemies, only my lack of connection was my monster, my isolation
The early part of the book, describing Liza’s journey out of that isolation, and the relationship which develops between Lottie as teacher and Liza as pupil, and the almost overwhelming nature of the world which can finally be revealed for Liza, as more and more refined ways of communication tools become available, are stunning, and wonderful.
Liza’s world soon becomes even more expanded, as she develops a wider relationship with Lottie’s family.
Liza does have a secret however – she has spectral, ghostly communicants ‘The Visitors’ which no one else can see or hear. Within the book, the Visitors are far from some sort of fey authorial device, yet this is not primarily ‘a spooky story’ either. Liza herself, like the reader, grows in understanding the nature of these communicants.
In the broader world, war is on the horizon, (the Boer War) and this becomes also a central part of the story, with some of the potent historical issues playing out in the lives of Mascull’s fictional characters.
This brings me to something else in her writing. There is a major relationship which develops in the story, and at a couple of points I found myself thinking ‘oh no, oh no, please don’t say this fine and truthful writer is going to start moving her characters around like pawns in order to satisfy some plot-shock’. She doesn’t. No spoilers revealed here, but what I will say is that there was a sense of absolute authenticity to the complex, layered characters Mascull had created – and I was intrigued, in her afterword, an interview conducted with the author, she discovered that what had happened for her in the writing was that magic, where though she had intended her characters to have one journey, somewhere, they up-sticked and said NO.
My sense, all through reading this book was that here is a writer of authenticity and listening. One not showy, one not ostentatious:
I just want my reader to be able to enter a different world and to care about the characters. I don’t want the story to be directed before it is told. I want the characters to do what they want and not to be restricted by genre. Genre is a useful tool but I prefer to use it lightly
(from an interview with the author, included in end-notes)
A wonderful, thoughtful piece of writing, which is about a lot, yet says it all economically, without indulgence, without histrionics, and with humanity and precision.
However – reader beware, I note with some surprise that no less than 3 novels, by 3 different authors, were published early this year, with the self-same title. This one is by Rebecca Mascull, and I shall definitely be looking forward to her second book, whenever that shall be.