At least once a year, I take down a certain book and read it through, though I know it well enough that I can start from any point. And then, if I can, I give it away. The gap in my bookshelf makes me happy; it feels right to pass along this book. But it comes with a sense of regret, too, and not a little awe. I don’t think anyone will write anything like William Horwood‘s Skallagrigg again.
Published in 1987, it seems both timeless and brave as a product of its time; Horwood’s winding prose is gentle, but spares you nothing. It begins in 1927 with Arthur, a boy with cerebral palsy abandoned in a squalid institution, where he loses even his name. He begins to tell his fellow patients of the Skallagrigg, a mysterious figure who he prays will take him home–over a fence and into a field of poppies, where someday he will run. Skallagrigg becomes a legend among the patients, a protector amid neglect and brutality. For years, disabled people pass down Skallagrigg stories all over England–with eyes, feet, symbols, speech–until Arthur becomes legendary too.
In the 1970s onward, the stories reach Esther Marquand. Privileged, clever, and contrary, she too is tangled in her body. She’s not always likable, but she is appealing. With more to say than she’s able, Esther reveals the workings of her mind in subtle ways. Every twist of a limb matters; every “Nah” or “Yeh” has an inflection. Emerging technology reveals her quick reasoning as well as foreshadows the freedom computers would bring to many disabled people. When Esther scans the letter grid of a Possum typewriter or chords Speedwords on a Microwriter-esque keyboard, you’re in her head where time passes in letters per minute, then words; you know exactly how much effort it takes her to communicate, and how elegant numbers and logic can be. Esther begins to believe the Skallagrigg stories are real, programming them into a labyrinthine interactive fiction game as she searches for the only person who knows who or what the Skallagrigg is. Along the way, she leaves an “Easter egg” especially for our narrator, who’s telling the story against Esther’s father’s wishes in 2019.
None of this does it justice; I don’t think I can. It’s a hell of a quest novel, where the mazes are library stacks and hospital corridors, and the battles are spiritual and personal as well as physical. Today it’s also a little bit of nostalgia for people who remember things like BASIC, Pong, and such vexing lines as “You are in a twisty little maze of passages, all different.” But if that were all, it wouldn’t have become its own Skallagrigg story. Out of print (but available through WorldCat), it circulates now through word of mouth and gifts of secondhand copies. Often the recipient is another disabled person, but always it’s only someone who would understand.
Skallagrigg is an epic act of empathy; I haven’t read anything so broad and painstakingly detailed before or since. This is worldbuilding–but what Horwood recreates is the everyday history, language, love stories and struggles of people like his own daughter as well as himself. His daughter has CP; the novel was partly his coming to terms with their relationship. But Esther’s is not the only quest, nor the only disability. Here, disability is also loneliness and estrangement and the inability to help the people we love. There is an ache throughout this book, and we follow the thoughts of each character as they slowly make their way to the people who might ease it.
Horwood returns often to the characters’ relationships, sometimes mentioning each with their complement in a refrain, as if they’re dancing. Relationships are everything in this novel, their mutual exchange and dialogue essential for the characters’ survival. In their bonds I find an apt line of poetry attributed to Roy Croft: “I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you.”
Disabled people may be rooted in their bodies, but the spirit of disability is also fluid–shaped by whom you’re with and where you are. Some people drag down hard at your bones and render you helpless, strangling your voice worse than disability could by shouting over your words until hopelessness and tension make you mute. With others, your limbs ease and you can breathe and participate and laugh. Expansive and forgiving, granting the whole human spectrum of emotion to mutually imperfect minds, Skallagrigg is a testament to the people who help you over barriers when you’re bruised and scraped against them–who give you glimpses of poppies and the sky between the trees.
It’s an intense and sometimes dramatic read, but it is also fiercely beautiful. The effect of reading the characters’ journeys in such exhaustive detail is greater than the sum of its parts, generating an amazement that’s distinct from the book itself–a mix of peace and joy and sadness and rightness so deep it’s almost a presence. The Skallagrigg, perhaps.
Bright orange poppies, taken by Rebecca O’Connell. All rights reserved.
Under the Eye of the Clock, by Christopher Nolan
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney, et. al.
Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper
Petey, by Ben Mikaelsen
William Horwood’s site