Catherine Simpson was kind enough to answer questions for my Author in the Spotlight feature a few weeks back and offered me a copy of her book to review. You can read her Q&A here. The book sounded really interesting, has had excellent reviews and has a brilliant quote from author James Robertson on the cover. I’m a big fan of James Robertson and knew I would be in for a good read. He has selected this as one of his favourite books of the year in a recent The Herald article – high praise indeed! So I came to this book with high expectations and I wasn’t disappointed. Truestory tells the story of Alice, married to Duncan and mother of Sam, living on an isolated Lancashire farm. Eleven year old Sam is autistic and hasn’t left the farm for many years. His father finds it difficult to cope with his behaviour, leaving Alice the exhausting work of trying to educate Sam and run the farmhouse. She is only able to leave for two hours each week, always on the same day and time, which Sam can just about tolerate. Into this life comes wanderer Larry, a stranger who Duncan has met in the pub and brings home, enthusiastic about a harebrained money making scheme.
Catherine Simpson conveys perfectly just how trapped Alice feels. She desperately needs that two hours a week to escape her everyday life yet at the same times dreads them as she never knows what she is going back to. Alice feels trapped too in her marriage and dreams of leaving the farm altogether but knows that Sam can’t leave, adding to her despair at her life. I found this short extract very moving: Alice describes how her world “had shrunk to the same size as Sam’s. I lost touch with friends. It was easier to let go of my old life and live the kind of life Sam demanded. And really what choice did I have?” I really felt her own loneliness and isolation reading this and felt so sad for her. Catherine Simpson says this story was inspired by her own child’s autism and I feel that because of this, it is a very insightful book. I was quite horrified at the reactions of some of the medical and support workers – and random strangers in the supermarket – who Alice encountered when Sam was younger and just beginning to show his problems interacting with the world. I expect many parents with children who have autism have similar tales to tell, very sad.
Sam is a great character. Like many autistic children, he is very bright and has a remarkable memory. Unable to go to school, Alice tries her best to educate him at home and he gets most of his information from the internet. I think we all know how unreliable the internet is but for Sam, if it’s on the internet it’s true! His straightforward view of his world did make me smile quite often, with his very literal interpretation of what people said. He is obsessed with maps, drawing and redrawing the farm and the nearby areas he deems safe. He does have dreams of leaving the farm and visiting places he reads about but the thought also terrifies him. When Larry breezes into his world, rather than disrupting Sam’s life as Alice expects, somehow he makes a connection with him and encourages him to dream and make a wish list of places he would like to go. Sam’s interactions on an internet Forum were a great insight into how his mind worked – and also the minds of the other forum users who you quickly come to know.
I really enjoyed following Alice and Sam’s life in Truestory. I found it to be a quirky, insightful and thought-provoking book. It really made me think about what it must be like to live with a child who has autism. As much as the child is trapped by their routines and need for safety, so too is the parent. But although there is much about being trapped, there is too the hope that there is possibility of escape for Alice and Sam. Not just a literal escape from the farm but also the chance to escape from the rigid routines demanded by Sam’s autism. A moving, well-crafted, engaging debut novel: I will look forward to reading what Catherine Simpson writes in future.
My thanks again to Catherine for giving me a copy of her book to read. It was published by Sandstone on 17th September 2015. You can buy a copy here: Truestory
Alice’s life is dictated by her autistic son, Sam, who refuses to leave their remote Lancashire farm. Her only time ‘off’ is two hours in Lancaster on a Tuesday afternoon – and even that doesn’t always pan out to be the break she needs. Husband Duncan brings Larry, a rootless wanderer, to the farm to embark on a money making scheme they’ve dreamed up. Alice is hostile but Larry beguiles Sam with tales of travel in the outside world and, soon, Alice begins to fall for him, too. By turns blackly comic, heart-breaking and heart-warming, Truestory looks at what happens when sacrifice slithers towards martyrdom. By turns happy and sad, ultimately it is a tale of hope.