Monday, March 17, 2008

Daniel Isn’t Talking by Marti Leimbach

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.

7 comments:

Nan - said...

I am utterly fascinated by this topic, but I wonder if nonfiction accounts might be the most interesting? Have you read any?

Tara said...

You've brought back many of my memories of this book. The relationship between Melanie and Andy disturbed many of those in my bookclub. I thought The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time was a good read, and another look at the mind of an autistic person.

BooksPlease said...

Nan I agree this is such a fascinating topic. Since writing the post I've talked about autism and this book to my daughter-in-law, a special needs teacher. She said that there are different degrees of autism and as you would expect the children are all so individual it's hard to generalise - some benefit from a special school and some can cope with mainstream school, some can't. I haven't read any nonfiction accounts, but I'm sure she could recommend some.

Tara, none of my book group were convinced by the Melanie/Andy relationship. My d-i-l is lending me The Curious Incident. It'll be interesting to compare the two books.

Nan - said...

Margaret, this is in response to your note on my blog. I just read that Anthony Minghella who did the No. 1 Ladies' adaptation died. So sad. His movies are among my most favorite. There's a nice piece here:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story
/story.php?storyId=88476659

heather (errantdreams) said...

This is definitely a subject that could use some good novels on it to help people understand, but it sounds like folks will have to keep looking for a truly good book. At least it sounds like it had some good parts to it.

gautami tripathy said...

This really is a book worth reading! I will try to get it.

I had worked for autistic children...

raych said...

Hmmm. I worked with an autistic toddler for a year, and totally loved it, so I'm usually pretty eager to pick up books that deal with the subject, but maybe I'll give this one a pass. Thanks for the review!