Great books take us where we haven’t been, illuminate dark corners and leave our own familiar world subtly changed, as if its axis has been marginally tilted. But despite literature’s fervour to explore the far reaches of human experience, disability is for the most part disregarded, or at best pushed to the margins. Disabled protagonists are few and far between.
In my latest book, Mouse and the Cossacks, Mouse is a young girl who hasn’t spoken for four years. She is an elective mute. She is also the narrator of the novel, through whose eyes and ears (“My ears work fine, it’s just my voice that doesn’t work”) we come to understand not only her world but that of the perplexing old man whose farmhouse she and her mother are renting, and her young neighbour who has a learning disability. Of my previous novels, Someone to Watch Over Me, Do White Whales Sing at the Edge of the World? and Noah, Noah all feature characters with a learning disability, and The Visiting Angel is based in part on my experience of working for the Richmond Fellowship in mental health therapeutic communities.
Although the three children, Scout, Jem and Dill, are increasingly upset by the community’s prejudice towards Tom Robinson, the black man being defended by Scout’s father against an unjust accusation of rape, they themselves exhibit a similar prejudice towards their neighbour, Boo Radley, a man with a learning disability. Hidden away behind his front door, Boo Radley exerts a powerful hold over the children’s imaginations until his own brief and dignified appearance centre-stage towards the end of the novel.
In migrant farmworkers George and Lennie, Steinbeck creates a touching but ill-fated friendship between two very different men clinging to their piece of the American dream. Although Lennie serves largely as a metaphor for the death of innocence in a hardened, Depression-era America, he also sheds light on the way that learning disability can be exploited unless it is nurtured and feared because it is “different”.
The first 60-page section of Faulkner’s landmark novel are presented through the eyes of Benji Compson, a man with a profound learning disability. In a shift away from the realist fiction of Dickens and Hardy, this is a spectacularly brave attempt to see the world through the eyes of someone whose disability brought such shame on the family that when his condition became apparent he was stripped of his original Christian name so as not to dishonour the uncle he was originally named after.
There’s an ongoing debate in disability politics over to what extent disability should be seen as a deficit or as a difference. Melville’s classic sticks rigidly to the former view, but creates a memorable tale of would-be revenge sought by the one-legged Captain Ahab against his nemesis, the whale.
Haddon’s is a remarkable act of ventriloquism. Illuminating the difference that is an autistic mind, he allows us to do what Scout’s father, Atticus, encourages his children to do in To Kill a Mockingbird – to walk around for a while in another person’s shoes to see the world as they see it.
The Secret Garden made a great impression on me when I read it as a child. Published in 1911, its central character, Mary Lennox, befriends Colin, a boy who uses a wheelchair and, never venturing outside, is in every sense an “invalid”. With the help of young Dickon, they bring back to life not only Colin but the “secret garden” once loved by Colin’s mother.
Serving as a bridge between my fiction and non-fiction choices is the autobiographical novel of Camus’ childhood spent in an impoverished district of Algiers, the draft of which was found in the wreckage of the car crash in which he died. Camus’ illiterate and deaf mother, who worked as a cleaning woman, features prominently in the novel, as does his deep attachment to her. The football-loving Camus and his friends stage their games in the grounds of the Home for Disabled Veterans. Camus, who remained loyal to the poor, the sick, the deformed and dispossessed, remarked that, “Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well under the sun and in history”.
8. The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken
If other people suddenly discovered they could fly, would my flightlessness make me disabled? Disability, as opposed to impairment, is so often a social construct and it’s this that can make it so isolating. In McCracken’s book, James Carlson Sweatt grows to be over eight feet tall, and the way his height both is and isn’t a disability creates a luminous offbeat story of love between him and unassuming librarian Peggy Cort.
Irving isn’t shy of writing about physical difference (Owen Meany, Patrick Wallingford, Billy, the bisexual narrator of In One Person). In A Son of the Circus, he explores the challenges of achondroplasia, circus life and poverty in a beautiful hymn of Dickensian intricacy which opens boldly with the line, “Usually, the dwarfs kept bringing him back”‘ but never descends into either voyeurism or pathos.
Published earlier this year after 10 years of research, Solomon’s mammoth tome offers stunning insights into what it is to raise children who are different to yourself. With chapters on Down’s Syndrome, deafness, disability, autism, dwarfism and schizophrenia, built around hundreds of interviews with parents, it is humane and deeply moving.