A Room Called Earth, Madeleine Ryan

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

24 thoughts on “A Room Called Earth, Madeleine Ryan

  1. Sounds intriguing… I have worked with so many people on the spectrum… a friend of mine who has studied autism and is a freelance editor had a theory that many on the spectrum are particularly suited to sub-editing and, in particular, chief sub-editor roles. It’s because good chief subs are thoroughly inflexible /pedantic about the use of language/grammar etc so they are ideally suited to the role. But sadly chief subs often have to manage teams and their people management skills leave a lot to be desired. I worked alongside a chief sub who was on the spectrum and he was such a prickly character but he was just brilliant at his job!

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  2. I have had a few friends in the past who I now realize were almost certainly high functioning on the spectrum, and I found their (yes, very blunt honesty) a pleasant change from some bitchy women I had known – I liked the fact they had no time for bullying or duplicity; I always knew where I stood with them.

    I have been appalled at the nastiness of some neurotypical people towards a current musical friend of mine with Aspergers – I enjoy nerdy conversations with him (his knowledge of rock and jazz music is outstanding) and find him very kind, but he often has to endure breathtaking rudeness; understandably he spends a lot of time alone with his dog and lives pretty much in social isolation. I’ve had friends complain to me that he doesn’t answer his phone and is rude – I wish they would try to understand a little bit of what it must be like for someone on the spectrum trying to negotiate social mores.

    Thanks for an interesting review Bill.

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    • I’m not sure why authors find it interesting to explore/make fun of autistic protagonists. At least here we know why – and there’s no poking even gentle fun at – the protagonist appears to be ‘on the spectrum’. Because the author is.

      As I say, I’m not sure Ryan’s protagonist doesn’t sound younger than Ryan intended, but the novel offers interesting insights into both autism and ordinary old coming of age.

      I’m sure you provide an island of comfort for your friend. It is difficult to understand what makes people behave badly to others who appear different, other than that especially when it comes to race or ethnicity, it is often officially condoned.

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      • We are good friends Bill; he was my instructor for some time and we’ve become great mates, in fact I rely on him for great talks about politics and current affairs! It’s a friendship i value hugely, perhaps partly because it took both of us some time to work out how best to communicate with each other – I could be confusing for him and he could be confronting for me – and now we can sit together and talk politics and current affairs for hours at a stretch with ease. We have great laughs! It’s a friendship I value hugely and I would be the poorer without it. I just wish people would give him more of a chance, he suffers from debilitating social anxiety.

        Interestingly, Sue, I have lost a couple of friendships because of it – other people who are critical of anyone being friends with him. I think this is sheer ignorance! At least this has given me insight into how much these people can suffer. My friend is amazingly good humoured about it, but the world can be an exhausting place for him to navigate at times.

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  3. I like the format of the twenty-four hour novel. It’s a little like posting candid photos on one’s blog I suppose *laughs* in that it really gives a sense of ordinary life for the character (or, driver/reader).

    The other week I listened to a really interesting interview on Meghan Daum’s Unspeakable podcast about neurodiversity; I really enjoyed the young woman’s (interviewee’s) approach to finding a balance between external information and expertise and personal and individual truth and experience (these are my terms, and might only serve to muddy the waters unnecessarily).

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    • Certainly over the space of this 24 hours Ryan’s protagonist gets through a whole story – beginning, middle, end. Sometimes authors cheat and look forwards or back. There is a little backwards looking here, but not too much, and the end comes around nicely with a little bit of uncertainty right up to the last minute.

      I think – perhaps answering my own question above – that writers use autistic protagonists to get us to look at things from a different angle and to perhaps thereby reach different conclusions about them.

      No doubt Ms 18 felt validated by having another young woman dealing with the same problems as she is. My own response was mostly around the experience of being alone at parties, which I have always avoided, and which she (and Ms 18) handle with far more aplomb and self awareness.

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      • I avoid parties like the plague Bill – I’m pretty introvert and don’t do well with party chit chat…I’m glad Ms 18 got some validation from reading this – it sounds as if the book may have been a real support for her.

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      • The last time I went to a party, a friend’s 40th, I took my older daughter who was at least the right age, but she had such a good time that I ended up wandering around ‘looking interested’ as usual anyway.

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  4. I love the way you switch point of view in your post from first person to third person. We shower, we get ready for the party. Is the novella written in a way that makes the reader feel as if she, too, is getting ready for the night? I enjoy that style of storytelling.

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    • I took it back to Milly’s last night so I can’t scan it to see. But I think that the reader is addressed so directly that you have the feeling of being there, of being conducted through the 24 hours. I think you would enjoy it. And I’m sure I’m not alone in enjoying someone else’s view of a book I have just read.

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  5. What a great sounding book. I loved that letter to the NYT, and this description of her father as being “like an inbuilt judicial system, governing my every move, and thought, and feeling, and choice”.

    I just wanted though to talk about that issue of labelling a character when the author doesn’t. It happens quite a lot, particularly with first person voices, where a character seems to be “on the spectrum” but it’s never mentioned. What are reviewers to do?

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    • (I’m still thinking about von Arnim). What are reviewers to do? I think in this case the publicity around the work is all about the spectrum, for instance the line I quoted about Ryan being ‘neurodiverse’. Without it, it is quite possible I wouldn’t have thought of it, let alone bring the subject up. There’s none of the exaggerated pointing in the text that there is for instance in The Rosie Project.

      As I say, Ms 18 is not on the spectrum but she obviously found a lot in the novel to identify with. The novel, without all the extra text surrounding it could quite easily be read as one night out related by any perceptive and slightly awkward young woman.

      The line you chose, about the father, points to the fact that there is a lot going on, in her head, not just I spoke to some people, I had a drink, I went home etc..

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  6. This sounds interesting. I’m autistic – I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 26, since when I was a child it was not generally thought that girls could be autistic. Though I have to say that I don’t interact much with the autistic community because of mad and unhelpful takes like “your autistic child is perfect”. Nobody is perfect, and I think there has been a weird romanticising of autism over the past decade or so, to the point that a lot of autistic people think that having autism is a “superpower” and neurotypical people are somehow inferior. There is a lot of blaming neurotypical people for not being autistic or understanding autistic thinking/behaviour, which seems just as unhelpful as when it was the other way around… I am now quite suspicious of books with autistic protagonists as a result!

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    • That is a great response Lou, and thank you for your openness. I love the “weird romanticising of autism”, the expression I hasten to add, not the process. I brought Ms 18 into this review because she loved the book so much. She has her problems, which are not autism, and which 30 or 40 years ago when my kids were little I had never heard of. But autism seems to be considered whenever kids now are ‘difficult’, and all such discussions seem to lead to chemical solutions.

      I’ll stick to the point of my review – a neurodiverse protagonist written by a neurodiverse author – until I learn otherwise, but thanks for pointing out that the autistic community is not monolithic.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that insight louloureads – is there any novel that you would recommend with an autistic protagonist that you would recommend? I’ve learnt a huge amount from trying to navigate a friendship with someone on the spectrum but if there’s anything you could recommend me to read, I’d be most interested.

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      • I just noticed our library has a copy of this, so I’ve put a reserve on it Bill.

        BTW, (off topic) I got chatting with a motorcycle enthusiast here today and he’s off shortly to a three week motorcycle enthusiasts trip to the Pilbrara, I’m so envious! They’re camping out too. I would love that! If I only had a motorbike I’d be off! Rats. I also got talking with a truckie (at a take away cafe here) who does the Sydney to Queensland run and apparently he can pretty much set his price these days. Said he loves the life! I mentioned your blog to him. Your fame spreads… (grin)

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      • A friend wrote after the Rosie Project “One person on the autism spectrum that writes about autism (and the only one I know of) is Temple Grandin.”

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      • You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure.

        The Pilbara is very wet at the moment. It was dry last week, but sticky. I see lots of reports of road closures. I guess the nights are cool enough for camping out. I wish I could “set my price” though they have followed the price of fuel up, a bit anyway.

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      • Honestly, I’ve been thinking about this for the better part of a day and I can’t say that I do – at least not a contemporary novel where the main character is intentionally written as autistic. I know some autistic people love Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – I enjoyed the book a lot but it isn’t true to my personal experience. Most of the books I’ve read with autistic main characters have been pretty poor, whether or not they are by people with relevant lived experience!

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  7. I love the sound of this. The 24 hour time period, and also the first person narrative of someone on the spectrum written by someone on the spectrum.

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