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Monday, 27 May 2013

Blindness in Fiction 5: blueeyedboy

I have always loved Joanne Harris's fiction. She is best known for her Vianne Rocher trilogy (Chocolat, The Lollipop Shoes, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure) which hides its dark centre beneath a sugary coating. blueeyedboy, on the other hand, is a thoroughly bleak novel of deceit, danger and death. It is confusing and beguiling in equal measure and even after two readings I am not sure I know exactly who is who and what precisely is what in its world of internet posts where no-one knows what is real and what is fiction.

It is hard to write about this astonishing novel without giving aspects of its complicated plot away, but I can say that it is a novel narrated by two people, both of whom take on more than one persona. At some points, one of the narrators describes the (perhaps imaginary) thoughts of a blind girl or woman. This is one of the most convincing depictions of what it is like to be blind I have come across. It is convincing not through discussions of darkness, tragedy and obstacles to be overcome, but because it describes actions, thoughts and feelings with no mention of vision whatsoever. The descriptions are, instead, full of lavish evocations of sounds, smells, tastes and touches. It is as if the sense of sight has been completely erased from this particular consciousness. But this is done, at first, without alerting the reader to this character's blindness. So it is only much later on in the narrative that it occurs to us that these descriptions have been written by someone who does not see. And the most exciting thing about this is that it is not until we begin to suspect the character's blindness that we notice the absence of the visual. Before this point, there is no sense that anything is missing from this character's interactions with the world. And this is precisely how the blind experience the world: not as a place of absence or lack from which the most important sense has been removed, but as an all encompassing sound-, smell-, touch- and taste-scape.

Harris can pull off this trick of writing blindness without lack because her writing has always been extraordinarily sensual. Sighted characters throughout her books revel in the tastes and smells which surround them in a way which calls into question the traditional hierarchy of the senses. In her best-known book Chocolat, this is epitomised in the magical smells, tastes and textures creates by Vianne in her shop in the south of France. In blueeyedboy Harris gives us a blind character whose interactions with the world are rooted in her non-visual senses. But she also shows us sighted characters who relate to all their senses in extremely powerful ways.

I love this book because as well as providing a gratifyingly positive representation of blindness, it also challenges the perceived primacy of sight by suggesting that vision is not as all-powerful as people tend to believe. Through the world of the internet we learn that nothing is as it seems and that the words which we glimpse on a computer screen might trick us in a way that smell, taste and sound do not. Indeed of all the characters in the book, it is perhaps the blind girl who is most perceptive about the world around her and the people in it.

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