All reviewed books are availible to buy in the TCF bookshop with profits going to independent booksellers, and to help the pod keep going.
There is much to like about HellSans, the latest novel from the talent that is Ever Dundas, and unless something truly remarkable comes along in the next few weeks it is my book of the year. Set in a future world where everyone is connected to an Inex, think an Alexa which can connect with your thoughts, and a font has been divised which like a drug gives everyone a hit of bliss when they read it. It sounds really good and it is, for those who are not allergic or immune to the font, HellSans, or who like their privacy,
Dundas has created not just a meticulously built and well thought through world, but also a perfect allegory for dyslexia. Those who can read HellSans live a life which they can easily float through on clouds of bliss, while those who are allergic suffer extream reactions, vomiting (so much vomiting), dizzy spells, skin falling off and teeth falling out their mouths. It’s like scurvey speeded up. While the symptoms of the allergy are not a direct parallel to what it is like to live with dyslexia, what happens to an allergic is a physical representation of what happens to the self esteem and emotinal balance of dyslexic people who have to opperate in a world where they are pretty much set to fail most days. Extra points go to Dundas for the irony that what the allergic need to stop their reactions are serif’s, the flourishes fonts have, which in real life is the bain of those of us with Irlen Syndrom which so often goes hand-in-hand with our dyslexic brains.
The attitude of the rest of this unnamed society, the sneers, the avoidance, the disbelief, adds an extra layer of meaning, it would be easy for society to add serif’s to stop the suffering of a significant minority, however if they did that they would have to give up their bliss, and they’re not going to. This directly mirrors my experience in education and the workplace as a nuro-diverse person. People, yes even the people who you would think would be understanding of disability, stop understanding the moment they are inconvenienced or have their self image challenged by someone elses needs. Spoiler alert: people, especially people in positions of power, put their self image first. It’s the double edged sword of hidden disability, you can pass, but only when the nuro-typical want you to.
Most writing about dyslexia is aimed at children, and a “You can be anything you want to be,” mind set of empty platitudes to give them confidence. However without the structural changes that are needed to the rest of society to create a world in which nuro-diverse people do more than just survive, it is a confidence we have been asked to build on quick sand. Which means that, at least for me, writing about dyslexia does not tend to reflect the reality that people live with, but rather a sunlight upland, where every adversity is overcome by some super inner strength on behalf of the nuero-diverse to graduate to the societal category of inspo-porn: and all the ignorant happily realise their mistakes and don’t feel any shame or need to lash out over it. In short it is fantasy, and it’s taken a move into the sci-fi thriller genre to give a realisitc portrayal of what the adveristy of dyslexia truely feels like. For myself and I think for many others, this is ground breaking.
There are so many other parts in HellSans I admire. Dundas packs in comment on so many issues lightly the way one might skim a stone across the pond. There is the first time I’ve read a book where a female protagonist has had to deal with her period while on the run. It was only when I read this that I suddenly realised how bizzare it is that it’s never been mentioned in fiction I’ve read before outside of YA coming of age stories. Dundas also claims the imperfect body as a full expression of self. The constant unsolisited advice about meditation, which becomes increasingly irritating and irrelevant, and the direct mapping of autoimmune disease onto the the allergy.
The narrative itself is not a simple one which bludgeon’s the reader over the head in order to make a writers rather blunt points, to often writers think a charactor woodenly espousing a view-point in enough to have dealt with an issue. Instead HellSans is elegant, tricky, it twists and doubles back on itself, it exists in layers, and at times becomes something quite different, dipping into abstract and concrete poetry when a scene calls for it.
First and foremost though this is a book about disability, which one could call the forgotten minority. In HellSans though Dundas has managed to articulate the nuro-diverse experience through body horror (honestly if your squeemish about bodily fluids this book is not for you). There is an increasingly recognised school of thought, which in the West has probably been introduced to most through The Body Keeps the Score, in which it is posited that it is the body not the mind, that remembers trauma and therefore to truely heal trauma we need to start in the body. By placing the effects of the allergy in the phsycial manifestation, Dundas has found the perfect medium to help the nuro-diverse explain to the nuro-typical what it’s like to live in their world, and it is a stroke close to genius to do it with the body, rather than the brain which is the seat of nuro-diversity.
It is not just the effects on the soul that Dundas has got right, it’s also the othering and dislike of disability from society. At the heart of HellSans is the unspoken question that all those with disability come to ask themselves sooner or later “Is it me who is disabled, or is the real disability societies inability to cope with differnece.” It is so human that when faced with problems our society would rather pretend they did not exist and that everything is perfect, just like the one in HellSans, rather than confront the reality that our lives may be materially better than other generations, but this thing as a whole is messy, disorganised, flawed and at worst killing us all. It is uncomfortable because none of us as individuals wants to admit that we are all part of the problem, we are all complicit, and we all have ego’s that would rather tell the story of us being “a good guy,” than do the hard, punishing, thankless and uncompromising task of making change happen
Moving these issues out of the pages of newspaper and third sector reports, and into the playground of the imagination builds a world where it is easier for us to explore what is happening today. There was a time that at least some of the British press were regularily reporting on the myriad cruelties dished out to the disabled in this country in the guise of austerity. With the trouble caused by Brexit and a terminally unstable government we no longer hear about what is happening, but you can bet that with the oncoming winter and cost of living crisis things are moving to an area past grim, and disabiled people will yet again find themselves paying the price for the wrongs of others, and at best props to enable political carears. This being the case, gutsy and unflinching writers like Dundas are exactly the kind of writers we need to be reading and celbrating, now more than ever.
The way this imaginary society sets up a binary of nuro-diverse against nuro-typicals where the only “win” can be for nuro-typicals is such a well developed and highly meaningful depiction of how nuro-diverse people have to navigate every-day life I have become voacally evangelical about this novel. I can’t stop telling people about it, or recommending it. Which brings me on to the thorny issue of art. There are many definitions of art all of which are valid view points, however the function of art is often to reflect back to us our own lives in a way that helps us untangle and understand them. If we accept this as it’s primary function, then HellSans is possibly the most important piece of art that has been create on the subject of dyslexia, but I fervently hope, it is not the last.
Keep your ears peeled for an intervew with Ever Dundas soon to come on the podcast.
For more sci-fi thrillers please check out our review of London in Black