Friday, March 27, 2015

What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins

4 Star

At age two, Laura Bridgman lost four of her five senses to scarlet fever. At age seven, she was taken to Perkins Institute in Boston to determine if a child so terribly afflicted could be taught. At age twelve, Charles Dickens declared her his prime interest for visiting America. And by age twenty, she was considered the nineteenth century's second most famous woman, having mastered language and charmed the world with her brilliance. Not since The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has a book proven so profoundly moving in illuminating the challenges of living in a completely unique inner world.

With Laura-by turns mischievous, temperamental, and witty-as the book's primary narrator, the fascinating kaleidoscope of characters includes the founder of Perkins Institute, Samuel Gridley Howe, with whom she was in love; his wife, the glamorous Julia Ward Howe, a renowned writer, abolitionist, and suffragist; Laura's beloved teacher, who married a missionary and died insane from syphilis; an Irish orphan with whom Laura had a tumultuous affair; Annie Sullivan; and even the young Helen Keller.

Rebecca - 4 Star

Laura Bridgeman was an amazing woman. Unbelievably amazing, and it is a travesty that her name isn’t instantly recognisable in the same way as Helen Keller’s. What Is Visible seeks to redress that imbalance and give substance to someone that history has all but forgotten. 

Laura could have easily been some saccharin heroine, much maligned by fate but yet angelic and charming, but Elkins paints a much more intriguing character; feisty, stern, proud and stubborn but strangely beguiling despite her lack of life experience and colour in her life. I must confess to being a little disappointed that we start the story when Laura is already literate and performing to crowds of admirers, as the educational process must have been a phenomenal journey; transforming from a girl completely starved of sensory stimulation, who couldn’t have even known what she was missing, to a highly eloquent individual. It might have also made me more sympathetic to Dr Howe, whose self-righteousness made me want to throttle him and I think it is here that I struggled most with this read. The book is divided into chapters that bear a certain character’s name, yet only Laura’s is told in the first person, which rather begs the question why the need for the names at the top of the page. Unfortunately many of the supporting characters are unsympathetic, or hugely flawed or incompletely drawn. Maybe this is intentional as Laura’s world must have been so incomplete despite her accomplishments, but I felt I wanted to understand them as well as Laura.

That said whilst I’m not convinced that What Is Visible would be for readers who aren't interested in historical fiction, but it both captured my imagination and taught me about an incredible woman whom the world should know more about.

Thank you to Twelve Books for our review copy.  All opinions are our own.

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