My rating: 1 of 5 stars
I decided quite a long while ago not to do negative reviews. I write fiction myself, I know how tricky it can be. But this book perpetuates a really unfortunate stereotype which needs to be highlighted–the idea that life with a disability is so terrible it isn’t worth living.
The book ends with the assisted suicide of the disabled character, Will Traynor. Now I’m not opposed to assisted suicide under any circumstances. On the contrary, I acknowledge some medical conditions are truly dreadful and I believe people should have the right to end their lives if they choose when their medical situation has become intolerable for them. But Will Traynor really isn’t badly off. On the contrary, his life looks full of promise. Yes, he’s now a wheelchair user, but he still has partial use of his hands. He has full use of his senses and his intelligence. He has no problems communicating. He’s wealthy. He’s an educated man and still an attractive one. An appealing woman loves him and wants to be with him. His life from a sitting position is surely full of possibilities. Indeed he could easily have continued being a lawyer. He has so much to live for (okay, being a lawyer isn’t what I’d choose, but whatever). He has absolutely no need to spend the rest of his days wallowing at home in self-pity.
Now I have a confession to make: I didn’t read the entire book. In fact I only read up to page 50, then glanced ahead. Reading is supposed to be a happy or at least enlightening experience, but reading this I found mentally draining, so I did myself a favour and gave up. But even reading just this far it was clear the main premise wasn’t the only problem. For instance, the viewpoint character, Lou, is initially portrayed as being terrified of meeting the disabled character, Will Traynor. From page 24:
“I pictured myself wiping the drool from the old man’s mouth, maybe asking loudly, “DID HE WANT A CUP OF TEA?””
And from page 35:
“What if he just stared at me, head lolling, all day? Would I be freaked out?”
Then the first time she actually meets him, Will Traynor does a mocking impression of someone with cerebral palsy in an attempt to scare her further, an impression worthy of the famous Donald Trump clip where the future president mocked a journalist by mimicking his disability.
But even worse than the mocking is Lou’s reaction. She describes what she sees as though what we are witnessing here is something out of a horror novel. For instance:
“… After a pause, he let out a bloodcurdling groan. Then his mouth twisted, and he let out another unearthly cry.”
“another prehistoric sound emerged from somewhere near his chest. It was a terrible, agonising noise.”
It goes on in this manner for half a page or so.
The point is, if Will Traynor’s impression was sufficiently accurate that Lou believed he really did have cerebral palsy or a similar disability, why was she seeing it in such dramatic terms? Why was it scaring her this much? What’s the matter with the woman? I’ve known lots of people with cerebral palsy and they really aren’t scary people. A certain amount of nervousness would have been understandable in particular because it was her first day in a new job, but this much made it sound like she thought Will was a monster.
Of course Lou’s terror was surely set up as a straw dog, ie. deliberately established early in order to knock her prejudice down later when she came to love Will as a person rather than as a scary disability. But this kind of trick places in the reader’s mind the idea that it’s “okay” and “normal” to be scared of someone with a disability, when really we need to get society past that.
But this book exists, and it’s popular, and I and other people with disabilities will have to live with it. Although how we’ll ever teach people to understand what it’s really like to have a disability when people with disabilities are portrayed like this in fiction I’ll never know. And how can we ever allow assisted suicide to become legal for those who really need it when people are being told mere wheelchair use is enough to make a life not worth living?
As long as books like this are published and continue to be popular, society’s understanding of disability will surely remain poor. So shame on you Penguin Random House for publishing it. And let’s hope, in time, the publishing industry will get better at portraying disability in their volumes.