No, that’s not a typo in the blog title. I have just finished this Aussie Young Adult novel (which I mentioned a few weeks ago) and felt the need to put down my feelings straight away. It’s not just the characters who are the stars of this book, but also the words. It’s full of word play, of different ways of using and seeing words.
It’s beautiful and moving, and an insight into someone who is forced to see the world in a different way, and to express herself mainly through writing poetry.
Alice has suffered an ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) at the age of twelve, through a violent act which is gradually outlined during the story. The doctors tell her family that she is unlikely to mature beyond that age. Her speech is one thing that suffers, and she also now suffers seizures, two common effects of an ABI. Alice’s family had already started to fall apart – her mother and father have both gone, and she and younger brother Joey are living with their grandparents, Gram and Papa Charlie, when the violence occurs. Papa Charlie impulsively takes revenge, and is sent to jail.
Life is a struggle for Alice, Joey and Gram, but their love for each other is constant, despite some ups and downs. They’re poor and quite isolated, and looked down on by most in their small town. Alice’s ABI means she cannot cope with school (‘too much noise sends my electrics haywire’, she says) and a day centre for ‘people like her’ is even worse, so she stays at home with Gram and reads anything she can, and (taught by her grandfather before the accident) she makes beautiful fishing flies to sell. And she has the lovely Bear, a Maremma sheepdog who is Alice’s protector and ‘constant companion’.
Alice is struggling to be more than the damaged child whom others perceive her to be – to prove that she can still grow and learn and be useful; and her poems describe this aching need (the sloping formatting here is my own error):
still i am alice no less no more just different alice still.
When she meets Manny, she is now fifteen, and leaving pieces of poetry all over town for people to find – her one way of communicating how she feels. Manny is a refugee and ex-boy soldier from Sierra Leone, a country I only ever hear described as ‘war-torn’. He has been taken in by a kind local family, and now plays football with the local team, but has caught a glimpse of Alice and finds her poetry. Millard describes perfectly the macho boy-man culture of the small-town team (here they are called the Bombers, a title used cleverly along the way).
I won’t tell much more of the plot, except that it weaves the tales of Alice and Manny and their families and some of the football team until it culminates heart-stoppingly in a flood of Biblical proportions.
What I can say is that Millard, through Alice, writes lovely poetry and poetic prose. It did take me a while to enjoy her style as it gets almost too rich after the initial rush, and it doesn’t utilise capital letters. But it’s not hard to understand, just takes some getting used to. Luckily Manny gets his point of view too, and this is clever in itself, as he uses English very carefully and formerly, as many do with their second language. So his shorter POVs break up the quirkiness and richness of Alice’s. In fact, it took less than a day for me to read this, which is very unusual these days!
Here’s another example of her poetry, describing her panic attack in ballet class, which culminates in a seizure (again please excuse the dodgy sentence alignment):
…clouds of ravens beat their wings blocked the light stole my air and i slow spiraled like a dying swan.
I love that Millard does not mention Swan Lake anywhere, but anyone with basic knowledge of the famous ballet will make the connection. Then there are the grimmer parts when Alice describes what happened to her. It’s horrific and doubly sad because there are cases like hers in real life where girls have been left with brain injury from attacks or domestic violence.
Having worked with people with brain injuries for some years, I can say that Alice’s POV, while unique to her, also has its mirrors in real life, where people who lose one form of communication learn to express themselves in other ways, and their use of language is often very different to the norm. Some turn to art or music, some express themselves physically in dance or in forms of sport or exercise.
The effects of brain injury, while there are commonalities (such as poor short-term memory, loss of impulse control, speech impediments, epilepsy, inability to use one or more limbs, loss of any of the senses), are very different for each person. Millard takes this on board and creates for us a unique and unforgettable character in Alice, a person who is just trying to express herself, grow into an adult, and live a life of love with her family and new friends.
While this is gritty and sometimes very sad and disturbing (for both Alice and Manny’s history) it’s a highly recommended and very moving read with an attention to language that is so enjoyable and satisfying 🙂