A debut novel, Grace Williams Says it Loud is another novel on the Orange Prize shortlist. It tells Grace’s story – the story of a “spastic” and “mental defective” who is sent to a mental institute at the age of eleven. Set in the 1950s onwards, the novel explores the stigma attached to disability at the time, and now.
The novel focuses particularly on Grace’s relationship with Daniel, an epileptic who she meets at the Briar. They are both friends and lovers – Daniel is the one person who treats Grace with love and care. Essentially the novel is the story of Grace and Daniel’s love: love against the odds.
Grace narrates the story; her voice is poetic and assured but at the same time very detached and matter of fact. The removed tone Grace uses can seem at odds with the brutality of some of the scenes, sometimes detracting from the potency of some of the sadder and more shocking events. In places, the tone of the novel seems downright wrong: Grace reports violence and sexual abuse in a disconnected and even inappropriate way which makes it hard to be affected by her voice. The novel can be jarring – the contrast between how the reader gets to know Grace (from inside her head) and how others view Grace is claustrophobic.
However, one incident in the book touched me deeply – when Grace is taken by her parents to visit the house of a cellist in order to buy a cello for her younger sister. The man who sells them the instrument has a ‘different’ daughter, too, and although Grace’s parents fail to understand and appreciate their daughter, this man knows how to approach Grace. It was only here, when Grace was treated as a valued individual by someone other than Daniel, that I was struck by the tragedy of Grace’s situation.
Since I’ve finished the book, I’ve come to appreciate its beauty and pertinence. But I can’t help thinking that Emma Henderson’s attempt to voice the thoughts of a disabled person fails to bridge the gap between normality and disability: Grace remains distant and hard to relate to for most of the novel.