Book Review: She Is Not Invisible, Marcus Sedgewick

Ever since MidwinterbloodI’ve been a huge fan of Marcus Sedgewick, who is a fantastic writer and someone you should definitely keep your eye on. I was intrigued by the concept of She Is Not Invisible even before I picked it up: a teen travels across the Atlantic in search of her father when he mysteriously goes missing and a stranger calls after finding his notebook. What’s especially interesting about She Is Not Invisible, though, is that the heroine is blind, and Laureth faces some distinct access barriers when it comes to safely bringing her father home.

I’m always hesitant when it comes to books featuring disabled protagonists, because I so desperately want them to be done well, and they so often aren’t through lack of research or interest, internalised stereotyping, and other issues. Thus, I was both concerned and excited when I started reading, and I ended up being pleasantly surprised: She Is Not Invisible is an honest, well-researched, thoughtful depiction of blindness, and it’s handled well contextually, though one thing that disappoints me is that Sedgewick choose to make Laureth almost entirely blind, something that’s actually quite rare. Blind author Kody Keplinger has pointed out on numerous occasions that visual impairments are highly variable, and that a diversity of blind experience in fiction would be an important step when it comes to deconstructing social attitudes about blindness, disability, and vision. (Full disclaimer: I’m legally blind, though it is partially correctable with glasses.)

What works for me about She Is Not Invisible is that while her blindness plays an important role in the story, it isn’t the story. The story is about a young, naive girl who gets caught up in her father’s conspiracy theories and thinks she is riding off to the rescue when she heads off from London to New York, only to put herself in danger and stumble into a series of unfortunate events. Her blindness is simply an element of what she has to deal with from the moment she gets the note from the stranger to the series of terrible decisions she makes that, ultimately, lead her to safety with her father again, but only after harrowing experiences.

Laureth attends a school for the blind, and we see her using assistive technology throughout the text in addition to exploring the social and cultural differences between the blind and sighted worlds. Her vision becomes important when she decides to set off to New York because she fears she can’t travel alone, and thus effectively kidnaps her little brother to force him to be her guide. Readers are introduced to screenreaders and other tools, and we see how her brother helps her navigate environments that she can’t see.

At the same time, we also see how discrimination works against her, and what it feels like to live in a world where people are impatient and judgmental when you don’t see or move like they do. There are numerous great scenes in the text where we see Laureth using subtle adaptations and tricks to pass as sighted, in order to avoid discrimination and nasty comments, and they are painful and intimate to watch. There’s also a scene that will feel achingly familiar to disabled people where she strikes up a flirtatious conversation and appears to be having fun and getting on well, until her impairment is revealed and suddenly her companion is no longer interested in her. It’s a stark reminder of the fact that people’s views about disabled people radically colour the way they interact with people; someone you were having fun with at one moment can be a pariah at the next because of a simple impairment.

Sedgewick did, in my opinion, an excellent job of integrating her impairment into the story, exploring the ramifications of being blind in a world geared towards sighted people, and not letting Laureth’s blindness take over the narrative. She’s a character who happens to be blind, not someone readers should pity or view as an inspiration for being able to perform tricks that allow her to pass in sighted society. She’s just Laureth, and her path to realisation and more maturity is rocky, sometimes wrenching, and painful to watch — but that’s because she’s a teen discovering the larger world, not because she’s a blind teen.

The story itself here is fascinating too, of course, as I’m intrigued by conspiracy theories and how people can become consumed by numbers and signs that they attach meaning to. As Laureth’s father gives everything, including a great writing career, up in order to pursue phantoms and ghosts, he doesn’t notice the effect it has on his family and the people around him, until the crescendo moment in She Is Not Invisible. This is a story about breaking up patterns and meanings and finding family again, and it’s also a story about looking before you leap.

It’s fast-paced, it’s dynamic, and it’s provocative, which is a scintillating combination. Sedgewick is truly amazing, and this showcases the fact that he’s no one-trick pony. She Is Not Invisible couldn’t be more different from Midwinterblood, and yet both novels are absolutely stunning, for entirely different reasons. They may be slim volumes, but they are weighty, and they carry worlds between their pages.