I started She Is Not Invisible with great trepidation. Before this, I’d never read a blind character who is believable, or painless to read about. So, I was pleased to see that Marcus Sedgwick went for a vastly different approach. Although I don’t necessarily identify with Laureth, even though she is also blind, I can see how other blind readers would. I know for a fact that the author did extensive research before writing the book, including spending a lot of time with blind students.
A number of things did bother me about Laureth’s character, however. The biggest is that she’s surprisingly dependent. She still holds her kid brother’s hand for him to guide her, for example, and she seems unable to walk unaided. In one scene, Laureth is in an airport and someone has just called her forward. The following happens.
‘You know why,’ I said, which gave me the task of walking the few paces up to the desk by myself.
Personally, this felt unrealistic. Laureth knew she was first in the queue and could hear the voice of the person at the desk. Even without the use of a cane, there isn’t really a reason why walking a few paces should be challenging. I don’t feel like this behaviour is representative of most blind teenagers. Laureth is sixteen and has been blind from birth, which is why I found this particularly hard to believe. Still, as people reach independence at very different stages, it is possible.
Despite that, I enjoyed the story a lot. Laureth’s father is a famous writer who has gone missing; she believes he may be in danger, starting a chain of events including a journey from London to New York. Laureth has an engaging voice and the characters are lively, making me want to keep reading. I also loved the idea of coincidence, which was one of the best themes in the book. Throughout, we see snippets of Laureth’s father’s notes, which hint at something powerful. However, in the end it didn’t deliver. Without spoiling it, I’ll just say I found it anticlimactic and a total disappointment considering I’d enjoyed the book up until that point. Whether I identified with Laureth as a blind person or not, the story was engaging and extremely entertaining (if somewhat unbelievable), making that ending a big letdown.
If you’re interested in disabled characters in lit, this book is worth a read. I’m glad I read the book despite my criticism of the ending and Laureth’s lack of independence, because it’s still one of the less cringey portrayals of a blind character.
I applaud Sedgwick for all the research he’s done—he clearly made more effort than most to portray a blind protagonist, such as by slipping in small details about technology that blind people use. He especially focuses on the iPhone, even going as far as to describe specific gestures that blind people use with VoiceOver.
I am interested in the group of people he interviewed. I know Sedgwick spent a lot of time at a school for the blind, yet I don’t know whether he interviewed students in a mainstream environment. This is something to consider when thinking about Laureth’s character. Most blind students in mainstream schools would not back away from using a cane—especially students like Laureth, who have no useful vision—quite simply because they have to in order to navigate that such large environments. By contrast, blind schools often let students walk around without a cane since the school is so small. When I attended one, the school went as far as to discourage students from using their cane inside, though this policy may be different now.
I wonder about the group Sedgwick interviewed in particular because Laureth says she was bullied when she was in a mainstream school, and implies that this isn’t an issue now she’s at a school for the blind. Whilst bullying is an experience that unfortunately many young disabled people face, I felt that the book contained an anti-mainstream subtext that made me a little uncomfortable. Having said that, I’m almost certain the author did this without even knowing it. I imagine this oversight is because he might not have talked to a more varied cross-section of the blind student population, who could have shared very different experiences with him.
Although Laureth didn’t represent me as a blind person, it doesn’t mean she was a badly written character. As within all groups of society, there are all kinds of blind people. Just because I didn’t identify with Laureth because of her helplessness doesn’t mean Sedgwick has failed. In fact, I think he achieved more than many other authors. He didn’t feed off tropes and stereotypes; instead, he met with many young blind people and found out about their lives. This was, in my opinion, the book’s strongest feature.
I would like to thank Marcus Sedgwick for doing such wonderful research and meeting with young blind people. Is Laureth perfect? No. I would like to see a strong, more independent blind teenager in another book. However, I think a lot of authors could learn from his example by talking to the group they are going to write about.
I hope that, as this book was released by a major publisher, others will consider coming forward and embracing diversity in literature as well.