In his debut novel Caroline, Adrian Spratt poses a question that has likely been on many people’s minds since March of 2020: In the face of hardship, difference, and isolation, what makes us who we are?
The novel follows Nick, a young lawyer navigating his job, his relationships, and his disability in 1980s New York. In an industry dominated by able-bodied writers writing ableist narratives, Caroline is a welcome deviation from the norm. Spratt, a former lawyer turned novelist, lost his vision at thirteen (just like Nick), and writes a novel where, though disability is central to the character and themes, it is more than anything simply a part of Caroline the way disability is a natural part of the human condition. This is in contrast to the way many able-bodied writers incorporate disability into their books, sensationalizing or moralizing it.
Nick is a young lawyer who meets Caroline at a fiction writing class and a tumultuous relationship ensues. Meanwhile, Nick is battling ableism at his law firm, from random people he encounters, and even within his family. Through it all through, Spratt is constantly asking readers to think critically about a variety of philosophical issues related to disability including how sight contributes to the enjoyment of art, Aristotle’s argument that a mental image is central to being human, and many more. Spratt does this in a way that shows the challenges, nuances, and contradictions that surround so many of these issues, while also portraying Nick as the perfectly capable human being that he is.
SPOILER ALERT. If you don’t want any plot spoilers, skip this next paragraph.
While the central questions of the book are clear and thoroughly engaging, where Caroline falls short is in the portrayal of women and themes surrounding women. Just as able-bodied writers writing about characters with disabilities or white writers writing about characters of color often don’t do justice to the people those characters represent, multiple women in the book become defined by their experiences and trauma in ways that men can’t fully understand. While maintaining the view that writers should only write about their own demographics and personal experiences would make for a very boring literary landscape, it’s inarguable that a fair amount of thought and effort needs to be put into portraying characters that are different from the writer . I wouldn’t argue by any stretch that Spratt did not put this effort in, only that he missed the mark in his representation. So, while I commend and am absolutely ravenous about the positive portrayal of people with disabilities in Caroline, I have a hard time reconciling that with the portrayal of women in the novel. As a woman myself who actively opposes gendered, male-centered views of women’s bodies and experiences surrounding their bodies, I feel it’s important to discuss and bring these issues to light.
Overall, Spratt brings an important voice to the literary table that offers an often ignored, but vital, perspective.
Slated for release from Books Fluent on February 15, 2022, you can preorder a copy of Caroline.
FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.