Emma Claire Sweeney’s debut novel from Legend Press is a heart-warming story about love and loss. Inspired by her sister, Lou who has cerebral palsy and autism, it is a deeply moving story that challenges misconceptions and stereotypes about learning disabilities.
Nearing eighty, Maeve runs Sea View Lodge in Morecambe where staff and guests share a range of learning disabilities. The novel begins with the arrival of Vince, Maeve’s estranged friend and the only person still living who knew her sister, Edie. She is forced to review her whole life. Maeve has never married and has been running the guest house all her life. Through her thoughts and memories the reader is offered glimpses of the tragic circumstances and choices that lie at the heart of the novel.
I found Emma Sweeney’s writing to be beautifully nuanced. She captures Maeve’s northern accent and speech perfectly: ‘Over my dead body,’ I said. ‘I’m not having strangers traipsing in here.’ This helps to underline her need to control everything about the running of the guesthouse while suppressing her own emotional needs, as she has done throughout her life.
For me one of the pleasures of the story is the voice of Edie, Maeve’s disabled twin sister, who we know from the outset is no longer alive. We find out that although Edie has learning disabilities and physical needs, unlike Maeve she has a beautiful singing voice and is able to sing in the church choir. Emma Sweeney uses an imaginative, poetic style to reconstruct repetitive, half-phrases and lines from songs and hymns to evoke Edie’s speech: We’re here now, Edie. All’s all right when Mum’s here. Can you hear me? Oh hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea.
The main theme of the novel is love – the tender and fierce love between sisters, the caring love between parents and children and the physical and emotional love between lovers. There is love between people with Downs’s syndrome and Asperger’s in the characters of Len and Steph, which is particularly poignant and ultimately challenges conventional feelings about what love really is, and what kinds of relationships are socially appropriate.
The plotting of the novel is exemplary with time switching smoothly from past to present and a gradual accumulation of imagery and detail. At first I found the use of the second person ‘you’, when Maeve speaks her thoughts to her sister, slightly confusing; but it emphasises the intimacy of their relationship, as well as the fact that Maeve has never really understood what Edie was trying to communicate.
One of the most shocking aspect of the novel is the attitude of professionals (social workers and doctors) to families with children who have learning disabilities. Letters and emails spell out the systematic, cold-hearted desire to hide them away in institutions. To ‘focus your love on your normal child.’ Apparently Emma Sweeney had to tone down some of the comments because initial readers of her pre-published novel found it too harsh. Having worked in special and mainstream schools with children with Down’s syndrome, autism and Asperger’s (as a teacher) I’m aware of how attitudes have been very slow to change in spite of ‘inclusive’ education, and especially for adults with needs where there is still little to offer.
Owl Song at Dawn is however not at all a story of gloom and doom. It is a warm, inclusive story where the main characters represent marginalised groups in society – the elderly and those with disabilities. I found it deeply moving and the feeling it left me with was one of hope and of the power of love to overcome the most adverse circumstances. Highly recommended.