One of the highlights of my reading year (so far) has been Graeme Simsion’s Rosie Project. It was funny, heart-warming and gave so many interesting insights into the mind of its hero, Don Tillman, an academic apparently somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, in his search for the perfect partner. The path of love doesn’t run smoothly (when does it ever in good fiction?) and most of the humour comes from the seeming mismatch between Don and the Rosie of the title.
However, since this book opens with Don and Rosie, married and living in New York, then it should come as no surprise to find that they did get together. And once again the laughs (and the sadness) come from the difficulties of the relationship – and particularly from how Don deals with the prospect of becoming a father. I would imagine that most fathers-to-be feel at least some trepidation when they first hear that tiny feet will soon be pattering – for someone like Don it is going to be even more of a life changing experience. Throw into the mix Gene (with the globe-trotting libido), a social worker with an axe to grind and an aging English rock star with a real-ale bar in his Manhattan penthouse and you can see where the comedy is coming from.
What raises both this book and the Rosie Project above being just another funny love story is Don. Because he is the narrator in both books we see the world through his eyes – this gives us a chance to begin to understand just how different life can be for those on the spectrum. This gives an undercurrent of slight sadness – not that Don is sad, but that you feel sympathy for his efforts to be understood. At one point he has just delivered a baby (not his own) in the presence of the social worker who, for slightly complicated plot reasons, thinks the child is his. The social worker accuses Don of being unfeeling and we get a sudden flash of insight into the real strain he is under constantly. He says ‘I was suddenly angry. I wanted to shake not just Lydia but the whole world of people who do not understand the difference between control of emotion and lack of it, and who make a totally illogical connection between inability to read others’ emotions and inability to experience their own’. And it just seems so important that people understand that…
When The Rosie Project was released in paperback I was lucky enough to hear the author talking about his work in Leeds. In the audience were also staff from a local group which works with autistic and asperger’s adults in West Yorkshire – the book has been a big hit with their service-users which suggests to me that the message being given is not only entertaining but informative. And I think it is one that everyone should be reading.
Prejudice is a funny thing. We are all guilty though, of judging others, and often because they are not ‘just like us’. We can misjudge the young because we have forgotten what childhood was really like and we can underestimate those much older than ourselves because they have had experiences we have yet to have. And if we don’t listen to others – both the young and the old – we seem to risk never learning anything….
Harry Leslie Smith has had so much experience in his long life. He has lived in poverty – the kind of poverty that most of us can only imagine – and fought in defense of freedoms which we now take for granted. What he is not doing in this book is fitting in with our narrow view of how an older person should present themselves – he doesn’t view the past through rose-coloured spectacles, he is not someone who is afraid to be heard and his opinions and beliefs could be those of a person of any age. There is a telling episode when he returns to Halifax, where he spent part of his youth (I would hesitate to refer to it as a childhood), and is confronted with the kind of unthinking racism which many older people – who have to see the country of their own youth changed in ways they don’t necessarily understand – are prone to. But, because he is obviously someone who sees beneath the skin colour or birthplace of people to the humanity which we all share this is not Harry’s way. As he says ‘ many people who are younger than me presume that because of my age I have a default setting which makes me, among other things, a lover of dogs, suspicious of immigrants, wary of welfare benefit recipients and distrusting of those who possess piercings and/or multiple tattoos’. You do not need to read much of this book to work out that is not an accurate description at all.
Harry Smith is, despite the gaps in his early education, an intelligent and thoughtful man. He has made sure that he is well-informed about what it is like to live in Britain now for those of us who are not part of the ruling elite and, most noticeably, he is angry. He is angry because the world his generation fought for, politically, socially and militarily, seems to be drifting back towards the ‘bad old days’ he would rather not see again. The privations of the immediate aftermath of World War Two, following on as they did from the Depression years of the 1930s were meant to have become a thing of the past with the coming of the welfare state. Our modern politicians, from all political parties (no favouritism shown here!), are given fairly short shrift as are the banks, climate-change deniers and the press.
I can’t say that I agree with absolutely everything Harry Smith says. But that isn’t the point – I don’t think any of us would want to live in even a benignly totalitarian state. The overarching message which I have taken from this book is that we should never give up fighting for what we think is right – any age is too young to decide that prejudice and injustice are somebody else’s problem.