I have interrupted my Women’s Prize pile to read and review Picking Up the Pieces by Jo Worgan. This book was a ‘Twitter find’, discovered by connecting with other bloggers and authors since beginning Boundbook. And a very welcome find too.
The novel tells the story of Kate, a young mother raising her autistic son Sam single handedly in a coastal Lancashire village. Kate is a woman running from her past, always looking behind her and trying to keep the life she has build safe for herself and, crucially, her son. When we first meet Kate life is settled and there is a new friend on the scene. Things are relatively calm. But is Kate’s past about to catch up with her?
So the scene is set for a domestic thriller, touching upon important issues such as abuse within relationships, how women and men move on and build new lives after trauma. There is a real warmth to the characters within the novel. The recurring theme is trust and how we allow people into our lives after past mistakes and difficult experiences. Aside from Kate, we are introduced to Matt, reeling from the breakdown of his longstanding marriage, trying to move on but tied to the past. Also Emily, the beautiful but desperate friend of Kate’s, struggling to accept her own son’s autistic diagnosis and looking for answers to appease an abusive and blaming husband.
However the real strength of this book, and what spoke to me on both a personal and professional level ,was the realistic and empathic portrayal of what it is like to parent an autistic child. There are no ‘genius Rainman characters’ here; this is not the world of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. Instead this gentle book offers a glimpse into the world of thousands of parents across the world. Those parents attempting to chartered a course for their ASD children through a confusing and sometimes hostile neurotypical world.
Through the character of Sam, Kate’s young autistic son, readers are offered a peek into the world of social stories, sensory dens and visual timetables; a world which for myself, as a both an SEN teacher and a parent of a child with additional needs, is very familiar. This book speaks of the reality of having to bend your will, your expectations to meet those of your child. It depicts the need for routine and stability but at the same time being honest about the fact this can be frustrating and sometimes overwhelming for parents and carers.
Jo Worgan is opening a window into realities that I guarantee are happening all around you. In every supermarket there is a least one parent who is on tenterhooks, trying to rush through this sensory overload and out the other side with their child unscathed. In every theme park there is a family who have been planning this for months, who have played out every possible outcome in their head and who will go home in triumph or despair.
We see Kate setting up and maintaining familiar routines, anticipating hurdles and picking her battles to navigate both her and Sam through the day. Parenting a neurodiverse child is parenting on steroids; more intense, with no let up, and Worgan portrays this well.
Within Kate we see a parent who has accepted her child’s diagnosis and is moving forwards and facing the challenges it brings. She has created her ‘bubble’, the inner sanctum where she and Sam can exist in harmony. Her ongoing challenge is expanding their bubble, facing the challenge that all parents face, preparing their child to cope in a world ahead of them. All parents live with the uncomfortable reality that we won’t always be there to protect and guide our children, for ASD parents this reality can be truly terrifying.
Kate is not the only parent we see on this journey. If Kate shows us acceptance then Emily is a parent in despair. Living with an unsupportive partner who blames her for their son’s diagnosis, she is a woman hell bent on finding answers, searching for the cure without seeing any of the joy before her.
And there is joy. For every Emily, there are hundred of Kate’s who accept and love their child for what they are. Who see beyond the diagnosis and can pinpoint and cherish the child within. These parents are breaking down barriers and entering their child’s world. Rather than just trying to prepare their child for the neurotypical world, these warrior parents are raising awareness and taking on the challenge of changing the world for their child. These parents, despite their daily challenges don’t want rescuing, they want understanding.
This is what Jo Worgan has achieved in creating a book with autism at it’s heart, another brick in the wall of acceptance and awareness. Keep building Jo!
Books mentioned in this blog…
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon
- Picking up the Pieces – Jo Worgan