Skallagrigg - William Horwood
Okay… Peter doesn’t know who his grandfather is. Peter’s father doesn’t know either and Peter’s grandmother never said much about it. Only the word Skallagrigg which she would spell out in her senility. So when Peter hears of and begins to play the computer game called Skallagrigg, he becomes interested in where it comes from and how it might be connected to his own history.
We then begin to learn about the life of its author Esther Marquand and her quest to find the Skallagrigg – a character who crops up in stories of hope and deliverance passed down among disabled people. Which brings us to one of the many notable aspects of this book; Esther has Cerebral Palsy, and many of the characters are disabled.
Esther, like many CPers before her, initially struggles to demonstrate her personality and intelligence to the wider world, but she happens to be in the right place at the right time as far as developing computer hardware is concerned. With the help of her father’s colleagues in the IT industry she is soon not only able to communicate through an adapted keyboard but developing into a talented programmer.
Meanwhile, she sets out trying to discover whether the characters in these Skallagrigg stories, such as Arthur, a man with CP who features in them all, were real people and what exactly the Skallagrigg is. This interest, which becomes a disruptive obsession, takes her on many adventures as well as the ultimate journey of self-discovery that she was eventually to incorporates into this amazing, life-changing computer game.
Horwood is either writing about subject areas he already knows well or else his research cannot be faulted. He writes in convincing detail on various subjects from the institutionalisation of disabled people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, through computer science to wind-surfing. He knows about people with various impairments. Norman, a man with learning difficulties who is compelled to write his mother’s address even years after he has been taken from his home, really struck a chord with me. After my uncle Andrew died this spring, I inherited his 2005 diary, which had little in it, except the address at which he grew up written several times over (though bizarrely he’d sometimes write Safeway instead of Suffolk). Horwood does not shy away from the aspects of impairment which others might find ugly or uncomfortable, and in recording them in a matter-of-fact way, he neutralises any discomfort one could feel about them.
But Horwood is not preaching any kind of political message about disablity. Disability plays an important part of the story, but it is incidental to the central messages. This thing happened and was passed down among this group of people and the thing that connected them just happened to be disability. Most importantly, Horwood validates disabled people as being worth writing about; normal human beings with normally complicated personalities and experience – no more brave or pathetic as the protagonists of any story.
The vast majority of characters, disabled and non-disabled, have this complexity and are totally real. There is only one angel and one devil in all this; Kate is Horwood’s idealised woman, young tall slim silk-stockinged Australian who never frowns or utters a cross word whatever unpleasant or irrational behaviour goes on around and towards her. She also stars in the only sex scene in the book, an honour that ought to have belonged to Esther (see below). Fortunately Horwood demonstrates an ability to write about real women elsewhere, so I guess you can excuse this single, total, self-indulgence.
The devil of the book is Dilke, the sadistic nurse in charge of Arthur and his friends, but this was perhaps necessary, his symbolism being far more important than his reality. However, all the other characters, old, young, male, female, disabled and non-disabled make it through with their strength and weakness, and therefore their credibility, fully intact.
And perhaps as a result, I don’t recall a book that has made me cry as much. I am not a complete rain-cloud and this really did surprise me. When someone says you’ll need a box of tissues, I usually expect to be nauseated. But this really touched me, really moved me a great deal.
Horwood has earned his poetic licence and is prepared to use it. For example, despite some excellent portrayals of cross-generational relationships, the vast majority of characters have been either been orphaned, are or become estranged from their parents. As a narrative device, this frees them to dedicate themselves to their friends without compromising loyalties, but alas, I noticed.
Had I read this very quickly, I probably wouldn’t have noticed this and other unlikely coincidences at all or indeed the neatness with which all the strings were finally tied up. However, his poetic justice was truly poetic so that although I saw the mirrors and the slight of hand, I was still somehow seduced and weeping as those strings were secured. Which demonstrates a very rare talent indeed.
I should also warn that a lot of Horwood’s language seems antiquated – not just his outdated use of terms around disability which we have to forgive, but there are flurries of romanticism which take you by surprise and some of the magic realism is rather Old School - more like Graham Greene than Zadie Smith, and thus perhaps not entirely to modern tastes.
And inevitably over the space of seven hundred pages, there were passages which I felt to be superlative and still other events or details which I felt were unwisely glossed over. For example, we follow Esther through adolescence, with her increasing sexual awareness and the attached fears and fantasies – almost to a tedious extent. Then suddenly her sexual initiation has been and gone without comment. I was far more interested in that, with the fear and excitement, pleasure and pain it perhaps entailed that than inflatable Kate’s al fresco shenanigans.
However, despite my ability to criticise such details, these are mere imperfections. Skallagrigg is a great book. It is a post-Enlightenment Pilgrim’s Progress (Pilgrim’s Progress being the second best-selling book of all time for a very good reason). There is allegory to be found within allegory here; about the journeys we all have to take, about making our way through the Slough of Despond without succumbing to despair, about love in its many shades and flavours and perhaps most of all, about hope.
I certainly feel I gained a lot from this book, apart from the fact that it is an exceptionally well-written book and a very good read. The best book I have read in a long time.