Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review of "No Book But The World" by Leah Hager Cohen

Leah Hager Cohen has written a very sensitive novel that tells the story of a brother and sister whose unusual bond stems from their upbringing as the children of parents who fought against raising a family that would conform to society's norms.  They ran a free-form school that encouraged the children to govern themselves and to take charge of their learning experiences with minimal interference from the "educators.".

Ava, "The Bird," is the older sister and narrates the piece, sometimes speaking with the voice of other characters- her brother Freddy, her husband, Dennis, her best friend, Kitty. Freddy is "different" - developmentally delayed and apparently falling somewhere on the autism spectrum.  But the non-conforming parents refused to allow anyone to diagnose or to put a label on their "special" Freddy, so we are not certain exactly what ails him..

The story is told as Freddy has been charged with a serious crime, and Ava rushes to his aid.  Deep philosophical questions are woven into this narrative.  To what degree is Ava responsible for helping her little brother, who is now an adult?  Was he capable of committing the crime of which he is accused? To what degree did the parents, Neel and June, hamper the development of Ava and Freddy  by their unbending commitment to raise them as "outsiders"?

As the narrative weaves back and forth between real time and flashbacks to Ava and Freddy's childhood, we get a growing sense of what makes Freddy and his "tics" tick.  Cohen provides wonderfully detailed descriptions of people and of places, especially of the secret world that Freddy, Ava and Kitty made for themselves in the woods: "Midgetropolis."

The landscape of this novel is littered with broken and incomplete human beings, but each individual is presented in such a way that one sees Ava's (and the author's) deep empathy for those who do not conform to society's idea of "perfect."  At its heart, this is a story about bonding relationships that overcome enormous hurdles that would keep individuals from understanding and accepting one another - even in the face of tragedy.

This quotation that occurs near the end of the story seems to best encapsulate the author's intent in writing this moving story:

"For why are we here if not to try to fathom one another?  Not through facts alone, but with the full extent of our imaginations.  What what are stories if not tools for imagining?" (Page 294)



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