Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says It Loud
Sceptre – Hodder & Stoughton, 2010

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

At first the cover might seem gimmicky, but now, having read Emma Henderson’s first novel, I realize that it’s the perfect way to summarize the story: let Grace say it for herself between the covers.

You see, the back cover simply reads: “this isn’t an ordinary love story but then grace isn’t an ordinary girl”. Fair enough.

From this snippet, the reader is expecting, from the outset, something beyond the ordinary. But, beyond that, Grace Williams Says It Loud.

Yup. She’s saying it. Just the way that she says it. It’s all about Grace.

Not having met Grace before, you should keep an open mind. Some of the people who do know her, at The Briar, where she lives, have rigid and, er, not-very-flattering opinions about her.

If you’ve heard any of that chat before you picked up this story, you might have your doubts. For instance, here is one of the nurses describing her to the doctor who fills the role of dentist at the institution:

“The occasional fit, but not epileptic. Occasionally violent, but we increased her Laractil in January. Physically and mentally defective. Obviously. A complete imbecile.”

Well, now you might be wondering about those 325 pages. Told, it might seem, in the voice of a defective, an imbecile.

But if you are a clever reader: you will realize there is something amiss. The girl, the young woman, that the staff at the Briar view in these terms couldn’t possibly write a book. But Grace Williams has done just that.

And that’s not the only surprise that she has up her proverbial sleeve either. Grace Williams also has a love interest at The Briar. His name is Daniel. (Defectives and imbeciles don’t fall in love, right?)

The Grace Williams that Daniel reflects back to her is a young woman of considerable interest. He knows how people look at Grace, he, even more so than many of the residents at The Briar, has an awareness of a world beyond, and he definitely has another perspective on Grace.

“He kept his gaze on me, and when his head steadied, and our eyes swivelled, met and focused, I saw dozens of reflections in Daniel’s eyes, including dozens of different me’s.”

Grace likes the way that she is with Daniel and the two seek out time alone together as often as possible. It’s clear that they have an intuitive understanding.

“I shivered. My two word replies were ever so meagre. Yet Daniel had conjured worlds from them. Journeys, at least. Cars, maps, departures. A revving-up.”

As you might have guessed, Daniel’s description from the staff at The Briar is not that flattering either. When he enters the story, he is described as a “clever-headed, clumsy-bodied epileptic”.

But that’s not how Grace would describe him: nope, no way. She knows that his way of saying things isn’t necessarily the way that she would say them herself, but she’s good with that.

“I knew by now that David didn’t always tell things straight, or whole. Mostly over-whole and flowery.”

Similarly, as the reader moves through Grace Williams Says It Loud, s/he will realize that Grace’s way of understanding and expressing things is uniquely hers as well.

Another slant of the story is that Grace’s life is limited in many ways by the institutional nature of her existence. Parts of it are grim. And there are gaps, large chunks of time that seem as good as lost because only the significant bits are recorded (and only the bits that are significant to Grace, at that).

So the reader learns that in 1972, lockers arrived at the hospital and, in 1973, the residents received radios, one each, above their beds, and, in 1974, Grace’s teeth were pulled. That’s pretty much it, the reader’s glimpse into three years of Grace’s life.

But you can see how those events would have been fundamentally-altering, life-changing, even, for our narrator. Yes, indeed. And you were introduced in 1947, so by now you’re well acquainted. (You certainly know her better than that nurse ever did.)

Not all the years pass that quickly. And although some bits of them are rather bleak indeed, there are moments of brightness — staff members who stand apart, residents who make connections despite the difficulties they face.

But the fact remains that there is a gap between Grace and the people with whom she interacts; perhaps, like this administrator, speaking of a boy that Grace knew at The Briar, it’s too easy to think that she doesn’t have “much of a life”.

“His wasn’t much of a life,” he said. “But it was a life nevertheless, and that life has been respected.”

And, in fact, I still felt a distance between myself as the reader and Grace, even at the end of those 325 pages.

And, when I took another step back, to try to evaluate the book from a different perspective, I started to feel that gap widen.

I flipped back to various sections surrounding some of the more significant plot events and started to wonder whether Grace’s perspective wasn’t a little too accessible, a little too familiar, a little too-much-like what my own would have been. I wanted Grace’s way of thinking to be more different than mine. (Even as I acknowledged that substantially altering her voice would mean it was a harder book to read.)

And right there, that’s when I realized that Emma Henderson had gotten me. And there I was, thinking myself rather a clever reader, but I’d been good and gotten. Grace Williams is NOT all that different.

And that’s the point. You just can’t be sure that someone you might have thought wasn’t living “all that much of a life” isn’t living out loud right that instant and you missed it.

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 7 of 20 (Emma Henderson)

Originality “A Complete Imbecile” Tells All
Readability Depends entirely on how well you get on with Grace
Author’s voice Potent and colourful in both language and tone
Narrative structure Episodic glimpses into and across 40 years
Gaffes None spotted
Expectations Debut novelist