Saturday, 3 October 2015

Angelfall, or the problem with disabled younger siblings in fiction

You know how sometimes, there'll be a book that you pick up and put back again each time you go to the bookshop? One that draws you in but you can't quite make the commitment to buy and read? For a little while, that book for me was Angelfall, by Susan Ee. It looked cool - I liked the idea of the post-apocalyptic, angel-ravaged landscape, and the cover is pretty awesome. I also enjoyed the fact that it had a young woman as its main character and there wasn't any mention of a love triangle in the blurb. I picked it up, put it back, picked it up again, each time I went to the bookshop. Eventually, I bought it in ebook form, and read it that way.

Perhaps this pick-it-up-put-it-back cycle hyped it up too much for me, but I was kind of disappointed. Not in the plot, so much, or the world building, which I enjoyed a lot. Mostly I was disappointed by the way that disability was discussed in the book, both in terms of physical disability and mental illness, which I found pretty ignorant and kind of gross. (spoilers follow for the entirety of Angelfall)

The main character, Penryn, is the teenage daughter of a schizophrenic mother. The mother is constantly described as scary, dangerous, unhinged, unable to properly love her children. Certainly she is presented as unable to take care of her children, leading to Penryn having to effectively mother her younger sister. There is very little mention of a father - I don't remember it ever being clear where he was or why he was unable to help to raise his daughters. The mother is presented as having brief, rare moments of clarity where she is horrified at what she's capable of and does things like sign up Penryn to every martial arts class she can locate and pay in advance for the following couple of years. Then she's back to being scary, dangerous and talking to demons. My problem with this character is that she remains a distant stereotype, never becoming a real character. She is entirely defined by the fact that she is violent, scary, unpredictable, and ultimately a danger to everyone around her, including her children.

One of the results of their mother's mental illness is that, prior to the events of the book occurring, Penryn's little sister was gravely injured by their mother when nobody else was around to see it. This injury - which I infer to be a spinal injury of some description, though it's not stated explicitly - left Paige unable to use her legs, or, as Ee puts it "wheelchair bound". The wheelchair users I know really dislike that phrase - they're not trapped in their chairs, the chair gives them freedom to get about and do stuff. Ee also refers to Paige as having "lost her legs", although it's clear from the end of the book that Paige is not an amputee. I found this a strange and lazy way to say that she had lost the use of her legs.

Paige is kidnapped within the first five per cent of the book, and doesn't show up again until the very end. Rescuing Paige is the primary driving force of the novel, with Penryn as narrator making clear that everything she does is for her sister. The girls' mother cannot be trusted to find her young daughter, because she's too busy being scary and crazy, so Penryn, a teenager, has to find and rescue her younger sister. Paige is there only to motivate Penryn, basically a macguffin to drive the plot. Like their mother, she never evolves past her stereotype, which is inspirational disabled angelic victim. Paige is sweet, loving, beautiful and perfect, apart from the fact that she's a victim of their crazy scary mother. She's the infant version of Cousin Helen from What Katy Did, a woman with disabilities who is literally referred to as a saint.

There was one particularly troubling passage about Paige and how she was before the world ended. Penryn briefly describes her sister's friends - a kid with significant limb difference, a kid who drools, a kid who has a breathing pump - and then describes Paige: "Paige was their cheerleader, counsellor and best friend all rolled into one." I read this as presenting Paige through juxtaposing the difference between her and her friends - sorry, her 'flock'. Paige is clearly presented as the leader of this little group, more charismatic, smarter, more positive and optimistic than the other children. The way that the other kids' disabilities are described is in such a way that we, the reader, are supposed to understand the revulsion that people feel upon looking at Paige's 'flock'. By this contrast, we infer, Paige is much better. Less gross. She doesn't drool. She looks the most 'normal'. Of course this makes her the 'cheerleader' of the group, a role in American fiction that is intrinsically linked with beauty, attraction, charisma, popularity and success. The other disabled kids were invoked only to show us more about how perfect Paige is.

I think the main reason that Ee spent so much energy setting up how perfect/beautiful/saintly Paige is, is so that we would feel more of the wrench for Penryn when Paige reappears at the end of the book, transformed into a monster. Her spine has been operated on by the angels, returning her ability to walk, and somehow she has been given super strength, but her (previously perfect, angelic) face has been cut open to replace her teeth with vicious fangs, which also leave her unable to talk. I can see that, if we buy in to the depiction of Paige as this perfect child, her transformation into atrocity is deeply emotionally affecting. However, by the time this was revealed, I was already tired of the trope-y nature of the characters in the book, and ready for it to end.

One thing I probably should mention is that this novel is written in first person, narrated by Penryn. I suppose it could be argued that a teenager who hates her mother and adores her sister will not present them as anything more than the stereotypes as which they appear in this book. But I find it problematic and irresponsible that Ee didn't do more to depict these characters in a more three-dimensional way. Penryn is shown to be able to think in a complex way about other issues, but in terms of thinking about disability, it's the same old stuff.

Disabled characters in books seem almost always to be either saints or burdens, and almost never the main character in their own right. Penryn has both a burden and a saint to bear, in the form of her mother and sister, but the tropes around disability that Ee employed read to me as both lazy and ignorant. The disabled characters of Angelfall never get to be anything other than the stereotypes that are initially employed to describe them - the same tired, lazy tropes that we see everywhere. As described in this brilliant essay, the disabled characters of this novel exist purely to add difficulty, pathos and motivation to the life of the main character, an abled young woman.

This book is partly so disappointing because I wanted it to be better. I liked that the main character could generally take care of herself. I enjoyed the world building. The prose was pretty decent. That's what makes it such a shame that the characterisation let it down.

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