Content Warning (for review): mental illness
Content Warning (for book): suicide, mental illness
Too few novels explore the day-to-day experiences of disabled people, and even fewer approach disability in a nuanced way. In his debut novel, Adrian Spratt manages to tell a compelling story about the struggles of life, while featuring a blind protagonist. Spratt’s protagonist, Nick, navigates through his life “just as” a nondisabled character would. Nick struggles through unhappiness at work, the joy of falling in love, the pain of fractured relationships, and the heartbreak of a devastating loss; yet, Spratt finds a way to balance incorporating the realities of blindness with these themes of relevance to all people.
A blind lawyer living in New York City in the 1980s, Nick meets titular character, Caroline, in a creative writing course. The story focuses on their love story as they navigate what Nick wants and what Caroline needs. Side plots include Nick’s struggles with ableism at work and his relationship with others in his life.
Told from Nick’s perspective, the novel is structured by short, dialogue-heavy chapters. Spratt sets up the narration as Nick telling his past story from the present moment, often using lines such as, “I remember enjoying the conversation,” or “I particularly remember…” For a moment, due to the nature of the structure, I thought this was a memoir, but Nick is a fictional character and Spratt just structures the book as if the narrator is telling a story about these years in his life. It was a bit jarring, though, when it seems that the narrator forgets details; as a reader, this made me confused. However, I can see it as an attempt to lean into storytelling and acknowledge that sometimes we don’t remember everything.
Dialogue plays a central role in the book. I’m unsure if the dialogue-heavy aspect is supposed to mimic how Nick doesn’t have access to visual information, or if it’s just Spratt’s style. I found the dialogue to be engaging, but I often craved more description and sensory detail. If Spratt wanted to avoid visual description, I think he could have dived into other sensory detail that may have brought the story more to life. As a blind person, I often observe that blind colleagues and I find new ways of experiencing the world in which we live. I would have loved to have seen that kind of approach adopted throughout the novel’s narrative style.
Spratt, who is blind, cleverly sneaks in many blind tidbits that blind and sighted readers will find interesting. For example, in the prologue, Nick teaches someone how to guide him—which a sighted reader unacquainted with a blind person may note and therefore perhaps be able to better assist a blind person in their own life (acknowledging, of course, that each blind person is unique). As the story is set in the 1980s, Spratt also demonstrates how blind people managed before screen-readers. Nick’s “readers” at his law firm—people who read his legal documents to him—not only show how blind people accessed documents without braille, but also these characters play their own role in the plot and don’t feel like a random detail thrown in to educate the reader on blindness. I also appreciated how Nick uses public transportation often—which challenges stereotypes that blind people can’t get around independently.
As a blind person reading this book, so many lines hit me very hard. Spratt nails the conversation about the difficulties on parents when their child has vision loss. In not knowing what to do or how best to help, Nick’s parents harm their relationship with him, which is a devastating reality faced by many disabled children with nondisabled family members. Nick also touches on his dilemma over having biological children, given that he has a genetic disease, saying: “Here was my conundrum. I felt mostly good about things and about myself. I was glad to be alive. So why question the quality of life of a child who might, but might not, share my disability?” (144). He also beautifully articulates the relationship with blindness that many of us have: the acceptance and ability to be a full human, while also feeling frustrated with the realities of ableism, being left out of conversations, not seeing the world around us, etc.
However, this really isn’t a book about disability; to me, at least, it’s about love, and figuring out what you need in a healthy relationship. Spratt tackles the difficult subject of mental health in relationships, writing though the happy and tough moments that Caroline and Nick face. As their relationship progresses, Caroline’s mental health concerns become more and more prevalent. Spratt doesn’t spare his protagonist through the narration, Nick admitting the struggles Caroline’s mental health put on him and his considerations of if he could or should continue a relationship with her. Spratt navigates a tricky line here. Some readers may take offense at this storyline of Nick’s hesitancy regarding having a serious relationship with Caroline because of her mental health concerns. Simultaneously, other readers may find it refreshing that Nick is so brutally honest with respect to his own hesitancies.
While I enjoyed much of what Spratt did with this book, there were moments that felt out of place, unrelated to the plot, and/or just odd. I found myself very frustrated with Nick, at times, particularly with his inability to commit to Caroline, which made the reading experience less enjoyable. I look forward to seeing Spratt improving on his emotional lines, as well, as often the parts of the book that I believe were supposed to be the most gut-wrenching fell a little short. Lastly, I got a bit confused with the timing of the story, and the foreshadowing at times felt forced and heavy-handed.
For a first novel, however, Spratt achieved incredible feats in Caroline. He tells a story of love, loss, and self-exploration, and I believe disabled and nondisabled readers can connect with the themes present. We see a dynamic, complex blind protagonist—but his blindness is only a pinch of Nick, and Spratt beautifully challenges stereotypes of disabled characters only being characterized by their disabilities.
Author: Adrian Spratt
Publisher: Books Fluent
About the Reviewer
Aspiring writer Maya Larson is an undergraduate senior at Grinnell College. Maya will graduate (very soon!) with majors in English and French. Her flash memoir, “Stargazer,” is published in Wordgathering.