Thursday, September 10, 2009

Daniel Isn't Talking by Marti Leimbach

This book came out in 2006 and I remember reading some of the press about it with interest. Autism was in the news a lot because I think 2006 was the height of the autism/vaccination link controversy; not that autism has stopped being in the news. At the time I thought I might find it too much of an issue du jour book and I skipped it, but I recently found it on the library shelf and remembered my earlier interest.

This is a novel, though it is based on the author’s experiences with her own son’s autism diagnosis. It’s another “everything was perfect then suddenly everything went wrong” book like I’ve been reading recently. Melanie (an American) and Stephen (an aristocratic Englishman) have a perfect life, except that 3-year-old Daniel isn’t talking, and he walks on his toes, and eventually starts banging his head against the floor. Melanie insists that something is wrong but Stephen thinks she is overreacting. Tragically, Melanie is right and Stephen can’t cope; he leaves the family after she refuses to institutionalize Daniel.

Leimbach writes intelligently about the autism diagnosis and subsequent adjustments: fearing that something is wrong with your child, having those fears confirmed, and the ensuing chaos as you try to adjust to the new reality. The book is set in London and as an American I found some of the cultural differences interesting. Everyone seems very interested in putting Daniel into a special school, to his mother’s dismay. A lot of the book is about Melanie’s battle to keep Daniel as much in the mainstream as possible, an approach to autism that is common in the U.S. but perhaps not so in Britain? Melanie eventually finds a therapist who connects with Daniel, but he’s not sanctioned by the National Health Service. The most poignant bits of the book are Melanie’s oblique references to the things she must sell in order to pay for Daniel’s sessions: “The vacuum fetched ninety pounds and I really don’t miss the carpet at all.”

Leimbach doesn’t sugar coat the hardest parts of life with Daniel but doesn’t dwell on them either. And Melanie is no saint, but she is a loving mother who rejoices in her child’s eventual progress. In the hands of a less skilled writer this could have been an exploitative, opportunistic book, but it’s not. It’s just a very personal story about one family’s experience. I liked it a lot.
(Book 32, 2009)


Katie said...

I read this book a few years ago and really enjoyed it, despite the topic. It was just well written I thought. I have worked with a child on the autism spectrum, so it is a cause close to my heart.

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