Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review: "What is Visible" by Kimberly Elkins

"What is Visible" by Kimberly Elkins
First published in 2014
307 pages
My rating: 3 out of 5

(image source 1, 2, 3)

If you had to give up one of your five senses, which would you choose? Can you imagine not being able to see, hear, smell or taste? Would life even be worth living if touch was your only way to experience the world? You'd be totally in the dark and dependent on others to tell you everything from a stain on your shirt to how babies are made to the color of your own hair -- and the information you receive would all be subjective and not necessarily accurate.

"What is Visible" is a novel based on the real life of Laura Bridgman, the little-known predecessor of Helen Keller in the mid-1800s. At just 2 years old, Laura lost four of her five senses to scarlet fever and a few years later went to live out her life at Boston's Perkins Institute with the famous Doctor Thomas Gridley Howe.

Laura learns to communicate masterfully through a method of fingers-on-palm hand signing. She knits and crochets and sews. And she's in possession of a brilliant, curious mind that is so often caged in and not allowed to expand. Before long, Laura is one of the most famous women in the nineteenth century, with people (including author Charles Dickens) traveling from far and wide to meet this amazing specimen so unlucky in circumstances.

The tale is told from the perspectives of not only Laura but Doctor Howe, the head of the Perkins Institute for the Blind and a leader in the field of phrenology (measuring skull shape and bumps to determine traits); Howe's wife, the poet Julia Ward Howe, composer of "Battle Hymn of the Republic"; and Sarah Wight, Laura's companion during her teen years. These additional characters helped bring context and atmosphere to the story as well as more drama and interest, but they were pretty much all unlikeable. Even Laura herself comes off as whiny, mean and obstinate, especially in her younger years, and it was hard to muster sympathy for our main character, despite her pitiful lot in life. Doctor Howe was the worst, written as a misogynistic, egotistical jerk whose real interest in Laura was as a religious experiment in his fight against Calvinism.

Another thing that bothered me was Laura's frequent use of words and phrases she'd have no context for, like "gnashing his teeth." She can't see or hear, so how can she really have any idea what constitutes "gnashing"? This was a small qualm, and obviously some artistic license must have been taken to make a readable first-person story, but it was a bit irritating.

I was glad to have learned of Laura Bridgman, a woman once known worldwide for the inspiration she provided but eventually eclipsed by the Perkins Institute's next "poster girl," Helen Keller. Her story is tragic and fascinating, and Elkins fills in the holes with fiction. But I felt the execution was lacking a bit and I wonder if I'd have gotten more enjoyment out of a biography of Laura over a novel about her life.

1 comment:

  1. I think a biography might have been more enjoyable, given the way you describe her personality in this book. I wonder if she really was that whiny? Not that she didn't have plenty to whine about, but I do wonder how much of her personality in the novel is based on real evidence, and how much is the author's imagination.


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