We discussed Daniel Isn’t Talking last Wednesday evening at the book group. One of the others summed up my feelings when she said, “I was rather under whelmed by it”. I had very mixed feelings whilst reading. I was intrigued to know more about autism, and the book certainly made me a lot more knowledgeable, but I thought that some of the characters were two-dimensional and unconvincing.
Daniel is autistic, but at first Stephen his British father refuses to accept that there is anything wrong with him, whilst his American mother, Melanie, struggles to find out what is wrong with him and the best way of looking after him and helping him to talk, play and become as “normal” as possible.
I found it quite a disturbing read not just because of the difficulties and cruelties that autism carries with it, but also because of the way such illnesses are dealt with in our society. There is seemingly a stigma, autism is something that is not generally understood, and the causes are unknown, although there are various ideas circulating (eg the MMR vaccination). The book deals with loyalties, families and ways of coping with illness, health and ways of healing and there are many angry assaults on the education system and its ways of dealing with children who are different in one way or another. Daniel has an older sister, Emily, who is a happy, healthy, cheerful child with “a mop of blonde curls billowing around her face, smiling eyes, aquamarine.” Stephen insists she goes to a pre-school, whilst Melanie wants to keep her at home. Emily is not interested in school and wants to play, looking at children in the playground as though they are in prison. Stephen has his way and Emily goes to the pre-school and finds that what she likes best is going home.
It’s a book full of angst. One poignant scene that remains with me after reading the book is the scene in the supermarket where Daniel is having a tantrum, screaming, trying to hurl himself out of the trolley, grabbing biscuits when Melanie meets a woman who understands, is sympathetic and helpful. The other customers are watching, imagining, so Melanie thinks, that she is merely indulging a spoilt child. Next time I’m out shopping surrounded by screaming children I’ll remember this scene!
Melanie is paranoid in her antagonism towards special schools. The people who visited Melanie trying to enlist him at a school are described as “a horrible pair who came by with their clipboards and their raincoats, looking more like spies than anybody who should be near children. They regarded Daniel as one might a wild animal, admiring him from a safe distance as we did the tiger who paced his enclosure.” Well, this is a novel, but my experience is far from that (my daughter-in-law is a special needs teacher).
This book is a quick, easy read, although the subject is far from easy, and is good at portraying a mother desperately trying to help her autistic child. However, some of the other characters (Stephen, his parents, Veena, the cleaner and Larry, Melanie’s brother) come over as wooden stereotypes and I found the sub-plot of, the alternative play therapist, Andy as Melanie’s lover unconvincing. The blurb on the back cover says it’s “Powerful and moving, and also surprisingly funny. A love story in every sense.” Yes, it is powerful and moving, and also sad, but I didn’t find any humour and the love story that came over to me is that of a mother for her child.