Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: 'The Story of Beautiful Girl' - Truth and Perception

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The Story Of Beautiful Girl. Photo / Supplied
The Story Of Beautiful Girl. Photo / Supplied

"Like Beautiful Girl, Homan became two people: the one inside that was the truth and the one outside that almost everyone believed him to be."

Who are we really? What's beyond the façade the rest of the world gets to see? How can we communicate without a voice?

Those questions are at the heart of this month's feature read, The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon. The story is told by three people, each of whom has no real voice in 1960s America.

There's Lynnie, institutionalised at a young age because of her intellectual disability. For years she has barely spoken, for she has seen the dangerous consequences of daring to have a voice at the Pennsylvania State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded.

There's Martha, the elderly childless widow. After years living in the shadow of her husband, she is now a virtual recluse. Her only visitors are former students, who come once a year to her Christmas open house.

Then there's Homan, a deaf African-American man on the run from the school and desperate to get back there to Lynnie - or as he calls her, Beautiful Girl.

Three isolated and vulnerable individuals, brought together one stormy night when Lynnie and Homan arrive on Martha's doorstep clutching Lynnie's newborn baby.
Lynnie can't say much, but when the authorities descend, the intensity of her two words "Hide her" is enough to convince Martha to raise the baby herself.

I'm now half way through the book and so far there is relatively little dialogue. The book is about moving beyond external appearances and looking deep into the characters' thoughts, dreams, motivations and observations.

It's also about the deep-seated human desire for communication and connection, as Lynnie and Homan build a bond without words. Lynnie uses intricate and colourful drawings to share both what has happened to her and what is important to her. Homan uses his own form of sign language, and Lynnie quickly catches on.

Both are keen observers, learning much about others from their facial expressions and demeanour. Lynnie sometimes sees "smaller selves", an inner truth visible in another's weary eyes or "happy-sad" smile.

Homan listens with his eyes, nose, mouth and skin, seeing things others miss, taking pride in recognising and fulfilling others' needs. He knows what will soothe an anxious resident through the trauma of a shift change, how to convince another to come to dinner, and how to sensitively change an adult's diaper.

The love between Lynnie and Homan feels real and compelling. When they are separated by Lynnie's capture, they feel the loss as a physical longing. Lynnie's "legs did not want to move, her arms had trouble in the laundry and she knew it was from the wanting." Homan wakes every morning, dreaming of Lynnie and Little One.

The strength of their bond is all the more poignant because much of their contemporary society, and even (or especially) the majority of the staff at the school, would have seen such a connection as impossible.

Without the chatter of conversation, there are constant reminders of just how much there is to see and learn when we slow down and observe those around us. That's what Martha is learning to do as she observes the baby's cues and responds intuitively to her needs, gradually opening her heart again.

But the communication techniques that helped Homan bond with Lynnie aren't much help in finding his way back to her. He can't read a book or a map and does not know in which direction he should be heading. So far he's had a few lucky breaks, some of which stretch credulity, yet still he walks and runs, jumps trains, hitches unintended rides in police cars, driven always by his need to return to Beautiful Girl.

Right now I'd say Homan's chances of seeing Beautiful Girl again are toothpick-slim. But crazy coincidences and lucky breaks can happen in real life too. I'm hoping there's one ahead for Homan and Lynnie, Martha and Little One.

On Tuesday, tune in for Bronwyn's mid-book blog on her September choice, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. Next Friday I'll be posting our Q and A with Rachel Simon.

Happy reading.

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