I am an unreliable narrator when it comes to reviews.
I love things too much. I have a natural ability to get lost in a world and sucked into a story and it means I sometimes enjoy things more than they deserve. And while this adds to my enjoyment of life and its experiences, it means you can’t always trust my opinions on things.
I remember watching “The Muppet Movie” with my husband. The Muppet character was singing “Am I a Man or am I Muppet” and the actor who played Sheldon Cooper appeared in the mirror. And I began to laugh hysterically and my husband laughed and whispered in my ear “It was funny, but it wasn’t that funny.” And I grinned back because for me it was that funny and it was one of those times when I thought “I am so glad I am Belinda Grant.”
But even with that caveat I think you can trust me when I say that “The State of Grace” is a superb read. I cannot recommend it enough.
Grace is a nearly sixteen year-old girl who is on the Autism Spectrum. She loves horses and Dr Who, has super smell and hearing, and finds everyday interactions incredibly draining and hard. She likes routine and predictability. So when her Mother and sister start acting weird, and the cute new boy at school starts paying attention to her, she finds it difficult to cope.
This book is written from Grace’s point of view and has a real “stream of consciousness” feel to it. I found her voice so addictive I keep having to stop myself writing in the same style in this review! Her emotions are very raw and there were lots of both “aha” moments but also moments of guilt when I realised how little I understand of the Autistic experience.
From the very first page you get a sense of what life is like for Grace.
“I’ll be mid conversation and listening and responding in all the right places, then someone will say something on the other side of the room- a snatch of something that my brain will pick up. I’ll lose the thread for a second, and when I tune back in I’ve lost my way. And then the other person might- for a split second- look at me oddly or scratch their nose and I’ll start thinking, No Grace you’ve lost it, and by then I’ve fallen even further behind, and I remember that my face has probably stopped making the appropriate shapes (interested, listening concerned, thoughtful- I have the full repertoire, as long as I don’t get distracted) and then I panic” (page 1)
The hardest thing about reading “The State of Grace” is that we are in her head and everyone else is not. And because communicating is so hard for her, and social norms so confusing, she is unable to express what she is feeling. We are sitting in her head, knowing she likes this boy, but she doesn’t know how to make that obvious, so he is confused. Or she is sitting in class and can’t listen because of the smell from next doors construction work, but she can’t tell the teacher that and so the teacher is yelling at her and I want to scream “Don’t you get it? She isn’t naughty, she is overwhelmed.”
And that is the power of this book. I didn’t just get to see inside Grace’s head, I got to experience a tiny taste of what it would be like to be a girl on the Autism spectrum.
One aspect of the book that surprised me is how positive it is. Grace has a team of people who are on her side. The owner of the stable where she keeps her horse. Her best friend Anna. Her sister. Her Grandma. And they aren’t just on her side, they love and appreciate her for exactly who she is. And that isn’t surprising because she is awesome. This meant that amidst the cringe-inducing mix-ups and challenges there is lots of feel-good “awws…” moments that make it an incredibly uplifting read.
Her Mum is both infuriating and relatable. She is going through her own drama, and despite trying to do all the right things for her daughter, she is dealing with a teenager she doesn’t understand and she is always letting Grace down. Her entire life revolves around her daughter’s diagnosis, and Rachel artfully explores her mother’s experience without disrupting the story or taking away from the fact that this is Grace’s tale.
There are some not-so-subtle digs at societies failed attempts to care for the Autistic community. There are references to her inappropriate therapy experiences, and how there are so many more materials and support for her Mother parenting a child on the spectrum than there ever were for her.
Rachel Lucas, who had previously written adult fiction, wrote this book after both her and her daughter were diagnose as being on the Autism Spectrum. I heard about the book from an excellent interview in the “So you want to be a Writer” podcast. You can listen to it Here on episode 166 (it is the second half of the podcast). In the interview Rachel talked about how there weren’t many books that fit her or her daughters experience and how one day she just heard Grace’s voice talking in her head and the book came very quickly after that. This is part of the power of the book. There is lots of information out there about Autism, but the voices of the Autistic are often left out of the discussion. It is important to hear those voices and that is what this book does. And as society is only just starting to acknowledge the significant difference between girls and boys experiences of Autism, and having a book that acknowledges the particular struggles and strengths of girls is timely and important.
One reason you will find me an unreliable reviewer for this book is because there are people in my life who are on the spectrum and anything that helps me to understand and care for them is like the most precious gold for me. But that is another reason I recommend it. I don’t care if you will enjoy the book (though you probably will). I don’t care if it is beautifully written (which it is). I just want you to read it, because I want you to experience life in Grace’s world.
And maybe if you do, you can make this world a little more bearable for all the wonderful Grace’s in it.