Roommates lending books they love can be a dicey proposition. It wasn’t that I was worried I would dislike Skallagrigg; I just worried I wouldn’t like it enough. This feeling stayed with me for the first part of the book, because it didn’t seem very straightforward at first. There was cryptic foreshadowing that would make sense towards the end. Thankfully, after the first few chapters, the book changes tack and becomes much easier to like. William Horwood deftly balances the excitement of the vista of 1980s computing with the challenges that being physically disabled presents (in any era). Skallagrigg is a canvas of hope and disappointment and all the states of being in between.
Esther Marquand has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. At first, her father, Richard, is unsure what to do with her. She is a reminder of losing his wife, and like most able-bodied people, he isn’t sure how to interact with her. For a while, he remains distant—but he can never bring himself to abandon her completely. That’s all she needs. Gradually, Richard takes a more active interest in Esther’s life and development, eventually purchasing a more suitable home and moving her out of the place that is caring for her. As they learn how to communicate, Richard and Esther’s relationship becomes more like that of any father and daughter, complete with the occasional conflict over Richard’s affections, Esther’s future, and grandparents. Horwood is very skilled at creating characters who are sympathetic because they are three-dimensional. Richard is nice; he loves Esther and has her best interest in heart. But he’s not perfect, and sometimes he doesn’t understand Esther’s choices. Similarly, Esther spends quite a bit of time being rude to Richard’s girlfriend, despite her grace and courtesy. It’s a typical rejection of someone she feels is usurping the affection that should be hers. While Horwood carefully depicts the challenges Esther faces, being dependent on others for the most basic necessities, he also makes it clear that, mentally and emotionally, she undergoes the same developments and changes that we all do.
Esther becomes interested in stories told by other people with CP. They describe a boy with CP, Arthur, and his experiences in a hospital. Over the years, a mythical character named the Skallagrigg repeatedly saves the day. Arthur and his friends never seem to meet the Skallagrigg directly, but they also credit him with the save. Esther becomes convinced that the Skallagrigg and Arthur are real people who might still be alive. She begins collecting the stories, searching for clues as to Arthur’s whereabouts. Her research takes her along a dark path into the history of Britain’s treatment of people with disabilities. It is not pretty. In this way, Skalligrigg exposes the inadequacies of Britain’s treatment of and education of people with disabilities. As I learnt, through Esther, how bad it really is, I felt a growing conviction that we have to do better; we have no excuse for not doing better. The idea that people with physical disabilities are mistakenly diagnosed with mental disabilities simply because we haven’t found a way of communicating with them is not just frustrating; it’s gobsmackingly negligent. It’s an indictment without being pedantic, because it all happens in service to this wonderful story.
Skallagrigg also captures the excitement present in 1980s computing, when having a personal computer meant one had to do a lot more programming than one does today. Richard owns a computing company that recognizes the importance of computing to businesses. He brings home a computer for Esther and her friend to try, and they become captivated by its possibilities. Esther finds the patterns and logic behind programming comforting; as a mathematician and programmer myself, I can relate. She also discovers, thanks to the help of a creative engineer, a way to communicate using a specialized keyboard that allows her to express herself like never before. Never underestimate the power of having voice.
Horwood uses gaming as a way for Esther to express the emotional impact of her research. She begins work on a game called Skallagrigg, which is a maze/puzzle adventure that asks its player difficult, non-obvious questions along the way. It’s this game that the narrator has played, in which he finds clues Esther scattered to bring him to this story. As someone who loves computers and understands their appeal in a way Esther does, I really enjoyed this part of the book. Even if you don’t, however, it remains a powerful metaphor: Esther is creating, she is taking control in a computer-based world because she has so little control in this world. It’s exciting and amazing, but at the same time one has to think about why she is making the game and what she puts into it. She doesn’t just pour in her wonder and appreciation for the Skallagrigg; she puts in her frustration with her disability, her disappointment in the system and its history, her depression and worry that her destiny is not in her own hands.
I blubbered quite a bit reading this book, never outright crying but definitely verging on tears. There were a few awkward train rides where I had to stop reading for a while until I could pull myself together. I think it’s fair to say that some of the scenes in Skallagrigg are sappy—but that works here. Horwood is able to tug the heartstrings because he creates something that is mostly believable. Esther is smart and capable but at a big disadvantage, physically. She is lucky in that she has a father who both cares about her and has the resources to help her, in stark contrast to Arthur, whose mother had no such recourse. Life isn’t fair, but it still seems like the tribulations Esther undergoes are more unfair than many people have to suffer. And this is all with an awareness that Esther is actually quite privileged. If countries like Britain can barely care for disabled people properly, imagine how less well-off countries fare.
I’ve chosen to label this book as science fiction, because it is. Firstly, as some of the footnotes reveal, it is set in the future (well, relative to when it was written)—2019 or later. Secondly, Horwood’s use of gaming and the Skallagrigg game itself are science-fiction set pieces. Science fiction doesn’t have to be set in the future, and it doesn’t have to involve any technology more advanced than what we already have. It just needs to take the technology we already have and look at it through a slightly different lens. Horwood does that here; he asks how a very carefully-created, complex text-adventure game might be used to communicate across generations and speech impediments. He is somewhat ahead of his time in recognizing how monumental video games will be as ways of transmitting stories and memes. For these reasons, Skallagrigg is science fiction—more along the lines of Atwood than Asimov, though, and therefore such a label is no reason to avoid it.
No, the only reason one might want to avoid this book is to avoid the tears that might be spilt over its pages. I can promise, though, that some of those tears will be of joy. It’s not a depressing book, just a starkly realistic one. Horwood doesn’t pull punches, but at the same time he rewards the reader for sticking through it. Like all great literature, Skallagrigg simultaneously tells a story while also making the reader think, and think not just about the issues the book raises but about their own beliefs and convictions. Because it’s one thing to read books, and it’s another to have the courage to let books change you.