Daniel Isn't Talking, by Marti Leimbach<br/>Eye Contact, by Cammie McGovern

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Life with an autistic child can be hard, and when Melanie, the central character in Marti Leimbach's novel, is at first nervous about her son's progress then hit with the diagnosis - boy, do we get hardship. Local government is crap; health professionals who aren't cold are clueless; the husband bails out ASAP and is miserly with the money while she has to flog the furniture; his parents are no better, the parents of normal children are insensitive; her brother is a militaristic oaf; the special schools teach nothing of use and the daughter's school is a fascist little outfit that weeds out the weak and underachievers.

An American in England, Melanie finds the English so stuck up and dehumanised (largely by public schools) that many seem scarcely capable of love or, often, speech. The adversity is awesome, the morality righteous, the emotions off the scale. If you like fiction emphatic and passionate, you'll relish this, with Melanie's love for Daniel stoic and triumphant like the lighthouse through a winter gale.

For others, this narrative neatness will come at the expense of plausibility. Initially, it's perfectly horrible and at the end it's nearly perfectly resolved, with good jokes but few shades of complexity between. The exceptions - touches of friendship or compassion - reinforce other stereotypes by coming from outsiders. While there's more than a whisper of truth in all this, the whisper has been made a roar to knock you off your feet.

Black and white are seductive tones when faced with a child's autism; shock and desperation don't make for subtlety. Read as a portrait of such a reaction, the book is intriguing, glowering at the world through the eyes of a character cruelly knocked off balance and left clinging to one certainty.

What makes you wonder if this was intentional is that the story is as structurally neat as morally polarised. Melanie wasn't just seeing the world that way, Marti Leimbach suggests: it really is like that.

The most restrained treatment comes, interestingly, with the extraordinary strangeness of autism itself. In descriptions of Daniel, we hear a voice of real authority. The publicity says that Leimbach has "family experience" of autism, and you can bet it's been a close and watchful one. She knows her stuff, and describes pithily many of autism's bizarre expressions with the matter-of-factness that often characterises those for whom serious autism is an everyday part of life.

Here she can be sharp and funny. The day Daniel says "go" - impelled out of silence by his craving for a repeated physical activity - is simple, moving and resonant, as are the crazy games played to tease him towards something closer to normality. It's the more ordinary scenes that are less convincing. You might say that novels give ordered insight to the normal chaos of life, and this is a kind of chaos in much need of understanding. But whereas the description of Daniel is raw and compelling, messages elsewhere strain to be enlightening.

Cammie McGovern takes an almost antithetical approach. In Eye Contact, characters come in weird shades, nervy and diffident; autism inspires mystery and uncertainty, rather than inner faith. A thriller beginning with a murder where the only witness, Adam, is autistic, the story takes the same aspect of that condition - a sometimes impenetrable and silent withdrawal - and seals the boy's evidence inside.

We're left uncertain about what he saw, but certain he saw (or did) something, and begin a tense, teasing stumble to the truth. McGovern's trick is to take the aching hope to hear from an autistic child and hang the whole plot on it, so that tantalising frustration drives the reader much as it drives a parent. The odd result is that you're sometimes closer to experiencing autism than through Leimbach's passion.

Eye Contact is a good yarn with a cast of beguiling characters and twists. And the fitful solution parallels another stark difference: the casual incompetence in the messy lives around Adam offers an intriguing comparison to his own. Many, McGovern suggests, and not just the autistic, struggle before finding their place in the world.

We all mistake the clues, and the differences between the able and disabled, the perpetrators and victims, the carers and cared-for are cleverly fluid and disconcerting. The story of Daniel finds clarity, hope and guidance in the sureness of love and compassion. Adam's is hopeful, too, but tells us that in human relationships the blind are often only ever led by the blind.

Michael Blastland's 'Joe: the only boy in the world' is published by Profile