Joys and challenges of living with autism | Review of ‘All the Little Bird-Hearts’ by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow

In her sparkling debut novel, the author who is autistic herself, details the many ways in which the condition signposts nearly every aspect of life

October 04, 2023 09:20 am | Updated October 26, 2023 04:25 pm IST

The protagonist is grappling with many issues, including a growing distance with her adolescent daughter.

The protagonist is grappling with many issues, including a growing distance with her adolescent daughter. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

“My mind is an electrical and involuntary force. Everything touches many, many other things, and these points of intersection are the only way in which the world can be properly understood.” Sunday Forrester is grappling with many issues, including a growing distance with her adolescent daughter, but at the heart lies her condition, autism, which remains unnamed, and the ways in which it signposts her relationships and everything else. Author Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow is autistic herself, and draws out the joys, and challenges, of the experience in her sparkling debut novel, All the Little Bird-Hearts.

Author Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow has a Ph.D in Creative Writing from the University of Kent,

Author Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow has a Ph.D in Creative Writing from the University of Kent, | Photo Credit: thebookerprizes.com

Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, the story, set in Lake district, revolves around Sunday and her 16-year-old daughter Dolores or Dolly, and the arrival of new neighbours Vita and Rollo, which upends their life. The novel begins in summer with Sunday in the midst of a long-standing white-food routine, when she eats only toast, cereal and crumpets. Sunday also nurses childhood hurts that she hasn’t come to terms with, including the death of her sister Dolores, after whom her daughter is named. 

When Vita storms into their home, Sunday begins collecting clues about her, a trait she is good at. Sunday spends hours alone “putting social evidence together in silence: what did that sentence mean? Why did he [or she] speak quickly?; was that anger, or was s/he in a rush?” She is a keen observer. A “pearl-pink” scar on the back of Vita’s hand makes her seem “fragile and breakable” to her. “The scar told me more about Vita than the clipped accent, the confidence and pretty face ever could”; or Vita’s short red mouth with a gentle overbite, “gave her a bird-like appearance, this sharp curved-bone beak of a mouth.” 

Unsurprisingly, Vita and Dolly have an ease of conversation, which Sunday can only dream of. To normal people, Sunday has failed in education (she couldn’t finish school because of the “people, the noise, the choreography of daily relationships”), in marriage, and as a mother. To get on amid her social awkwardness, Sunday turns to a handbook of etiquette and old Sicilian tales.

But Vita values her “eccentricities”, or so it seems, and Sunday opens her ordered life to her and Rollo. Soon, Dolly is spending enormous amounts of time with Vita and Rollo that includes sleepovers; and Vita is using a spare key to let herself in to Sunday’s home, sharing food, perfumes and conversation with Dolly. 

Sunday, who had been told by her mother that she wasn’t wired right, has one thing that Vita and Rollo don’t have: a daughter. The childless couple lays claim to her, and Sunday can do little but watch helplessly as Dolly drifts into their embrace. Dolly will eventually reconnect with her mother — and this little sign of hope is a lovely touch at the end.

All the Little Bird-Hearts
Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow 
Tinder Press
₹799

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in

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