Morrall came to the book world’s attention when her first novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003, a book that also boosted the reputation of the Tindal Street Press, the small publishing house that has brought many Birmingham writers’ work to the public. In that novel it becomes apparent that Morrall is particularly interested in the outsider, the person who for one reason or another doesn’t quite dance to the same drum as others who inhabit their community. The Language of Others also explores the life of people who find relating to their surroundings puzzling at best and at times downright impossible.
Told through the prism of three different time frames, The Language of Others is the story of Jess, who we first meet as she is about to begin a degree in Music at the University of Birmingham. Arriving an hour early, she hears a second year student playing the violin in the concert hall at the Barber Institute and her life is irrevocably altered from that moment. She falls under Andrew’s spell and never having been in a relationship before has nothing against which to measure their romance. While everyone around her can see that he is manipulative and almost certainly has the potential to be violent, Jess is convinced that she can make their marriage work if only she can understand what it is that Andrew needs and learn how to provide it.
The other two time frames deal with Jess’s childhood and her life with her son, Joel, after she and Andrew have divorced. The scenes set in her childhood home, Audlands, a mansion that seems to crumble along with the family’s biscuit empire, give some indication as to why Jess is so easily taken in by Andrew. Brought up by a father who has difficulty communicating outside his work environment and a mother who finds it easier to understand and empathise with the more sociable younger daughter, Harriet, Jess has lived a mentally and spiritually isolated existence until she discovers music. It is music that gives her purpose and allows her to organise her life in a way that brings her a sense of being in control.
Control is something that she finds difficult to maintain where Joel is concerned. Joel most definitely marches to a drum that no one else is hearing. At school his teachers find him lagging behind both in intellectual and social development and yet Jess knows that he has a mind that can make leaps of understanding way beyond his chronological age. He simply has no time for and no need of all the details that the education system demands of him. I wouldn’t have liked to have been a maths teacher who asked Joel to show his working!
Jess and Joel are saved by two remarkable women. In Jess’s case it is Mary, the friend she makes at University who stands by her in the face of everything that Andrew does that might destroy their friendship. For Joel, it is Alice, the young woman who not only recognises his gifts but also has the compassion and empathy to help him begin to understand (if not actually hear) the drum beat that everyone else is marching to. It is also Alice who gently explains to Jess why Joel has the problems that he does and mentions for the first time Aspergers Syndrome.
Apparently, when Morrall published this book she was accused by some reviewers of jumping on the bandwagon of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. She defended herself against such criticism by saying that what she had wanted to do was consider the condition from two very different perspectives. First she wanted to look at what it was like to live with a milder form of the syndrome, one which made it possible to interact with the rest of the world although never to really understand it, and secondly she wanted to explore it from the point of view of a woman. I’m glad that I didn’t know this before I read the book because if I had my experience would have been completely different. I got almost to the end of the novel before I realised that it was from Jess that Joel had inherited his Aspergers and not Andrew. Only as Jess recognised her situation did I identify the source of her difficulties communicating with the world around her. However, other members of the group had pinpointed the truth in a matter of pages.
We’ve been here before. When we read The Curious Incident I was astounded that no one else shared Christopher’s obsession with prime numbers. I’ve always been fascinated by them. So when Jess says:
I want to hear the echo of nothing for miles around. I want to be the only person who can disturb the air when I walk through my house. I can feel it parting to let me through, closing up again behind me. The silence soaks into my mind, an invisible medicine that drips down, melting hardened arteries, easing its way into neglected and forgotten places.
Apparently, loneliness is a twenty-first-century disease which leads to alcoholism, drug-taking, depression, suicides. It’s better to be married if you want to live longer. I defy all of this research. I thrive on the emptiness of my house.
I know exactly where she’s coming from. I love having friends round for the day, lunch parties are my speciality, but when they go I always heave a sigh of relief. I may not be quite as far along the Aspergers spectrum as Jess, but my drumbeat is near enough hers for me to understand her completely.
The other point we discussed at some length was how we felt about reading a book set practically in our own backyard. I actually started reading it precisely where the first scene is set and one of our number lives opposite the cemetery where it draws to a close. This didn’t bother me at all but some people found it really disconcerting, feeling that the writer was trying to be clever. But every book has to be set somewhere, has to be in someone’s backyard. So I wondered, is this an experience you’ve had? And if so, how did you feel about it? Perhaps you could let me know.