Last year I kept a list in the back of my diary of books I thought I should buy following your reviews. There’s forty or fifty books there, with your names beside them, and I can see I have bought maybe six – and one of those, Nada, was a cheat because Pam/Travellin’ Penguin mailed me her copy. But, from The Burglar who counted the Spoons (Emma) to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist (Lou) to The Country of Ice Cream Star (Melanie) to Benevolence (Kim) there’s posts worth of missed opportunities which I hope I will one day get to.
I assumed that A Room Called Earth (2020) which I see by the inscription I bought Milly for her birthday last year would be amongst them. But it’s not, so I can’t say who has reviewed it before me. Milly said she hasn’t had a chance to read it yet because our granddaughter, Ms 18, who had been living with her, kept it in her room and read it at least three times in probably the same number of months (in preference to the Perth based SF I gave her for christmas and whose name I forget).
And so we get to ‘the spectrum’. It is debatable whether Ms 18 is on it, she certainly has her problems but she is dealing with those quietly and sensibly (for an 18 year old). The point is that the author is, and Ms 18 clearly identified with aspects of her protagonist – as we do.
The publicity around this book directs us to an article Ryan wrote for the New York Times, ‘Dear Parents: Your Child with Autism is Perfect‘.
Children with autism are wired to express themselves truthfully regardless of the social consequences. This is powerful, and anything powerful needs to be handled with care. Your child needs your protection, because feathers will be ruffled and feelings will get hurt. People’s elaborate facades and carefully woven lies won’t survive the scrutiny of an autistic mind or the unfiltered nature of its emotions. This is a positive thing, even if it’s inconvenient and difficult.NYT 2 Jul 2020
The novel is 24 hours in the life of a young woman, in her mid twenties, getting ready for, going to, experiencing a party, coming home, waking up. A party in Melbourne, though the city and the suburbs, like the young woman, are unnamed. Is she “on the spectrum”? I’m sure she doesn’t say. Once again it is to be inferred from the slightly off-centre way she observes and behaves.
I forget now how I got to the NYT article, though the first line on the inside cover, “A brilliant debut from a neurodiverse author”, was presumably a hint to check out Ryan’s bio. But importantly the protagonist is not the stereotypical over-logical genius of the Rosie novels or Big Bang Theory because A Room Called Earth is what I’m always asking for, a story written by someone who is or has been there.
Connection with my own species has been difficult. I’m more at ease with the animal part of myself than the human part of myself. I feel at peace when I’m with Porkchop [her cat]. I have no concern about what he might or might not be thinking, or what might or might not happen next.
And so we follow her inner monologue, choosing clothes, how to put up her hair, reflecting on ex-boyfriends, life, the universe, her father.
It only slowly becomes apparent that her parents are dead, that she lives alone in the enormous mansion they have left her in Melbourne’s most expensive suburb. Oh yes, and it’s Christmas Eve. I read this some time ago and I’m skip reading to bring myself back up to – well not ‘speed’ but anyway something less than sloth.
The chapters are all short, two or three pages, and don’t take us forward at any great pace. By chapter 9 we are showered, standing contemplatively before a mirror, and wondering about nailpolish colour. By chapter 17 we have arrived at the party and are drinking our own vodka from our own martini glass, and thinking about drugs (which she doesn’t ‘do’.)
One time I went to a doctor … about something completely unrelated to anything medical and she asked me if I was taking prescription medication … antidepressants, perhaps? I tried to explain to her that I don’t feel comfortable having my feelings meddled with.
Ms 18 exactly!
We go for a walk, the suburbs feel familiar, inner-suburban terraces, return, stand around alone, she’s a lot more comfortable standing on her own at a party than I ever was, talk, meet a guy.
When people ask me what I ‘do’, I often say that I’m an alchemist, because it seems to me the most honest label to put on all the things I don’t want to be labelled as. It makes sense to me. Although it wouldn’t to my dad. I’m always conscious of what would or wouldn’t make sense to my dad. He’s like an inbuilt judicial system, governing my every move, and thought, and feeling, and choice.
The plot makes its way through the 24 hrs. The inner monologue is much more ‘coming of age’, much more Ms 18’s age, than the mid twenties age implied by her previous experiences. Is this part of her ‘being on the spectrum’? I can’t say. But it is an engrossing work and well worth reading, for grandfathers as well as granddaughters.
Madeleine Ryan, A Room Called Earth, Scribe, Melbourne, 2021. 287pp.
Interestingly, the first Like for this post was from Actually Autistic Bloggers. I haven’t checked them out but the link takes you to their list of (self-identified, I think) autistic bloggers