Quite early on in lockdown I made a conscious decision to support small businesses rather than large companies like amazon. This has been a great decision, because personal recommendations are so much better than an algorithm. I now buy my books from Tamsin Rosewell at Kenilworth Books. Back in June, Tamsin recommended a new book by a new author which is my Book of 2020. Deservedly shortlisted for several awards, Elle McNicoll’s debut novel touched me so deeply I had to write a review. I originally wrote this for a local newsletter but I love this book so much I want the world to know about it!
A Kind of Spark – Elle McNicoll
“Other people’s minds are small. Your mind is enormous. It has room for everything and everyone. You don’t want to be like other people.”
On a superficial level, this book is about 11 year old Addie who is upset when she learns about the witch trials that took place in her Scottish hometown. She decides to campaign for a memorial to commemorate their lives, and is eventually successful.
That’s it. But there’s a whole other level, because Addie is autistic. So is her older sister Keedie, who at 18 has just started at university. Keedie’s neurotypical twin sister, in a beautiful twist, stays at home on her computer all day, trying to build a career as a social influencer.
I first cried three pages into the first chapter as Addie – the book is written is the first person – describes walking down the school corridor. It’s a completely normal description as she flinches away from the cacophony of noise, the people brushing against her, and she counts her breaths in order to stay in control. So normal and so painful, because this is the moment I realised the author knew precisely what she was writing about. Because Elle McNicoll is a neurodivergent writer, and she knows what she’s talking about. I particularly love Addie’s description of her difference, an explanation of which in itself is considered contentious as people are often encouraged to say “a person with autism” rather than “an autistic person”. But as Addie herself says “I’m autistic. It’s something you are, not something you have”, reclaiming the choice for neurodivergent people to choose whichever label we like, or none at all.
Addie isn’t just upset when she learns about the witch trials on a school trip. She overloads and has to curl up, much to the anger of her unsympathetic teacher (who receives a most satisfying verbal dressing-down later in the book) and the bemusement of her new best friend, who tries hard to understand. But overloads, meltdowns and shutdowns are written about as the normality that they are for us: the book cleverly weaves in flashbacks as Addie remembers her parents talking with teachers and psychologists who explain them for the benefit of readers who may not have come across the terms before.
On her mission to publicise her plans for the memorial, something she feels very strongly about because she relates to the victims of the witch trials, Addie and her friend venture out to the house of an old lady who lives alone and is known for being unfriendly and strange. Rather than a ‘normal’ conversation, the old lady shows the girls her pet tortoise. As they walk away, Addie’s friend remarks that the old lady isn’t the scary person she’s made out to be and Addie simply states “I think she’s like me”. It’s a beautiful nod to the many undiagnosed and late-diagnosed older neurodiverse people out there.
I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who want to read it, but suffice to say it’s truly satisfying without falling into the trap of being cloying or sentimental. Don’t be put off that this is a “young adult book” with an eleven year old protagonist. It’s beautiful.