CW: ableism, trauma, spoilers
I have a lot of thoughts about Before I Saw You – the 34th book I’ve read so far this year.
Before I Saw You popped up on my Kindle recommendations – and honestly, I should have heeded the alarm bells of the snippets of previous reviews.
“A charming page-turner of a romance with characters I cared about enormously. I inhaled it! ― Laura Jane Williams, bestselling author of Our Stop
The perfect read for fans of Me Before You ― Candis
An emotional, character-led story ― My Weekly
A heartwarming and heartbreaking debut ― Heat”
This book is one I would tongue in cheek describe as “upliftspirational”.
Ableism is always charming and heartwarming.
The story is told from two perspectives – Alfie and Alice, two twenty something career minded people who come together through life changing events.
They are next to each other in hospital – after each having serious accidents that left them disabled.
Alfie is the only survivor of a car accident – that killed his two best mates. One leg is amputated and he’s learning to walk again.
Alice survives a late night office fire, saved by a hero receptionist. She endures burns to her face and body.
Over a course of time – it’s hard to tell how long, as the book is quite slow moving – they fall in love through conversation and hand holding, though they never see each other.
There is so much grief and shame in the book. So much.
Alfie is less shameful about his disability than Alice, but he’s still concerned about discrimination at his workplace – he’s a PE teacher. But Alice cannot shake the shame and self hatred – afraid to look in the mirror and for others to see her.
The language used perpetuated the tragedy narrative.
Words like “broken” and “freak” were constantly used by Alice, though the medical staff and peripheral characters also constantly validated what a tragedy Alice’s face was after the accident, too.
From the first chapter:
“‘Lucky? You think she’s going to feel lucky when she looks in the mirror for the first time? She’s been badly burnt, the poor girl.”
A few examples from Alice’s perspective near the end:
“He didn’t even have the decency to look her in the eye. Why was he talking to the goddam floor? Could he not stand to see the monster he’d failed to fix? ‘I’m so sorry. I’ll come back tomorrow to check on the wounds. In the meantime, is there anyone you’d like us to call?’ She shook her head. How could she tell them it hadn’t worked? How could she admit it had been a huge mistake? It had failed. Nothing had changed. She was still broken, and she needed to get used to the fact that now she always would be.”
“How would anyone be able to love someone so broken?”
“The morning after she’d got home from hospital, Alice had taken down every single mirror she owned. Even the thought of walking past one and catching her reflection worried her. Now she was about to see her face reflected back to her on the screen.”
”The scarring has gone down a little and it’s less red in places, but … I’m still a freak.’
There was so much more.
Both Alfie and Alice’s friends seem to accept their respective disabilities more than Alfie and Alice themselves – offering encouraging words. But other than this, and perhaps the ending, there was no positive representation of disability at all.
I have tried to find out if Emily Houghton, the author of Before I Saw You, has burns, a facial difference or amputation, but cannot find anything. I have googled and tweeted Emily Houghton. (The about section on her website says she wrote the book when her life changed forever.) I hope it’s #OwnVoices. (In the acknowledgments, Emily writes “Alfie and Alice are a reflection of so many parts of me” – so perhaps she has firsthand lived experience of disability and facial difference, but there’s nothing public to suggest she does.) It would give the book so much more credibility if she was disabled.
But also, what responsibility does an author have to their readers to disclose their disability or not? That’s a big question that I have not got an answer to. Disabled people need not disclose disability but I do think it helps give a sense of the person’s experience when making creative works like this book. I think readers deserve transparency around if there is an own voices author, or not.
And if it’s not own voices, what inspired Emily to write this book? Has she got a disabled relative or friend? Does she work in the disability sector – like hospital rehab? Or can she easily disguise her burn scars or amputation (if it is written from lived experience)? (The acknowledgements mention doctors, but no reference to actually disabled people who were consulted. Emily writes: “Dr Nagla Elfaki, Dr Tom Stonier and Dr Naomi Cairns, who were, despite saving lives and working unbelievably long hours, always on hand for medical fact-checking and advice! I do have to say that creative licence was still taken with the book, but without their knowledge and support the authenticity and understanding of the characters’ journeys would not have been the same.”) This is important in determining the author’s experience of disability and how she wants readers to feel about disability. And of course, as with a number of books I’ve read by disabled people (mostly memoirs), lived experience of disability doesn’t mean the writer won’t be ableist.
I resonated with the bonds formed with other patients – this is so important. Friendship between disabled people is integral to self actualisation and realisation of disability identity. There are some good lines about self acceptance and accessibility infrequently through the book, but it’s very much portraying disability as tragedy, grief of becoming disabled, the fear of seeing yourself (and others) now you have a facial difference. I liked the line about how even if you’re curious (about someone’s disability), it’s not ok if it causes hurt.
As someone born with a facial difference, the descriptions around the fear the main character Alice has about looking at herself and also letting others see her only increases the stigma around people like me. Living with a facial difference is hard. There have been days when I didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror, and the stares, laughs and discrimination I endure regularly is wearing. But I am proof that you can thrive, and be happy with your appearance if you have a facial difference. There really wasn’t any hope for Alice. She couldn’t even imagine that happening.
And the idea that you don’t need to see someone to fall in love is true (I did years of internet dating, and loved people I’d only talked to online/phone, and I was very self conscious about revealing my appearance to boys I was keen on) but also suggests disabled people are rarely loved for our appearances, that any “deformities” must be looked past. Above all, the idea that disabled people’s worth is measured by the love from someone else rather than self love is perpetuated frequently throughout the book.
I also recognise that the experience of acquired disability is different to mine. There is grief, and it’s valid. But I worry these tropes (like with Jo Jo Moyes’ Me Before You) suggest disabled is worse than death, and it might be a reader’s only experience with disability.
There was a little about the difficulty of navigating stares and pointing from children and adults; but no real resolution in how to handle these situations. I would love to have seen Alice especially find some role models in the facial difference community, perhaps some reference to Changing Faces – the British charity that does so much good work in educating people about facial differences. But there was no mention of either. Even consulting with the charity on language would have helped.
Alfie was fairly upbeat about his acquired disability – I like to think this rubbed off on Alice at the end of the book. There was a lot of talk from Alice about wanting her face to be “fixed”, against Alfie’s beliefs. Now it wasn’t up to him to have a say in what Alice does with her body, but at least one character had a perspective that Alice’s face was not something to be hidden away.
While there was a happy ending, it wasn’t enough to redeem itself from the shame and tragic narrative throughout.
There were good intentions with Before I Saw You. But there was so much ableism which left me frustrated. There were so many missed opportunities in this book – particularly to show disability isn’t a tragedy. Mostly, it left me sad that seemingly another book takes up space in writing Disability as a tragedy.
This book doesn’t make any room for us disabled people, and it reinforces stereotypes that our lives are terrible. Disabled people, people with facial differences, we deserve better representation in literature than this.