The Oxford English dictionary defines the word “kaleidoscope” as a tube containing mirrors and pieces of coloured glass whose reflections produce patterns when the tube is rotated.
To my great horror this same little book, a pocket dictionary, contained no definition for “autism”, the subject of a story set in suburban Johannesburg, South Africa.
Kaleidoscope is Barbara Erasmus’ first novel, published by Penguin back in 2004.
Thankfully, I found the definition in Oxford’s larger Dictionary and Thesaurus. Autism is “a mental condition in which a person has great difficulty in communicating with other people. Simply put. But the condition is much more complex than one would care to imagine.
Any reader of this blog post may be wondering about the writer’s preoccupation with dictionary definitions. The writer has adopted the meticulous practice of one of Kaleidoscope’s main characters, Claire, in finding meanings to things not previously understood. Claire adopted this practice since her school days and, in spite of her sister, Kate’s, misgivings and irritations at this practice, it has served Claire well in her life both as a woman and female actuarial scientist in a male-dominated work environment.
The jacket blurb to Kaleidoscope describes autism by quoting the words of the quiet, sensitive child from the narrative;
“They think I’m perfect when they see me. I cry on-cue. I move my arms and legs. My fingers and my toes both add up to ten. Their specialists tick all the columns on their rating scale. They won’t find out, None of the tests they run will show my secret. My subtle imperfections will complicate the lives of everyone who loves me.”
It is fortunate that this child, Amy, does have a small circle of people, her mother and father, her grandmother, and her aunt and uncle, who do indeed love her, even though they are haunted and troubled by their own genetic make-up and faults in their personalities which they all learn to accept has contributed naturally to this girl’s condition.
On the subject of Autism, one could not help recalling the nineteen-eighties film in which Dustin Hoffman delivered an award-winning performance as an autistic adult in Rainman. And, indeed, this film emerges as an intertext, much later in the story.
The story’s title is apt, as it defers narrative space to Amy’s mother, her sister, and their husbands who attempt to account for the child’s condition and grapple with their own thoughts and feelings on how to deal with this special child. Amy’s mother, Kate, is an artist, a talented theatrical performer, while her mother’s sister, Claire, is an actuary, preoccupied with statistics and how to arrive at solutions to problems through them.
Claire, as a character, comes across as the most sympathetic to the child’s needs, and is such a character to which I, as reader, endure to most with all the empathy that I can muster. Her sibling, husband and brother-in-law characterise her as an impersonal, humourless person, unable to love affectionately and through her perceived heart and soul into her relationships with others. This is ironically so untrue.
I have enjoyed the way Barbara Erasmus has weaved her narrative together through the eyes of a handful of characters, as though she were delicately twisting and turning a kaleidoscope, throwing up an array of colours in different shapes and forms. The characters’ narratives are self-reflective, and the reader is able to trace the genetic origins of the girl’s condition which is later diagnosed as Asperger’s Syndrome. Predictably, there are feelings of guilt from each one of the characters, but it feels as though those expressed by Claire are more heartfelt.
Ms Erasmus acknowledges in great detail the sources of inspiration and information to which she owes her research of her debut novel. Since this novel’s first appearance in our book stores, Ms Erasmus has been a prodigious novelist of note, having published no fewer than four novels since 2004.
Even with Insects was published soon after Kaleidoscope in 2005. Kaleidoscope was nominated for the Sunday Times Fiction prize and the Commonwealth Best First Novel award. Our Bookslivesa website notes vaguely that Even with Insects “is about relationships”. They also mention that Ms Erasmus’ third novel, Chameleon, deals with white collar crime and was published in 2008. Finally, Below Luck Level, returns to the human condition and the illnesses with which it is afflicted in twenty-first century society, in this case, Alzheimer’s.
Searching for alternative reviews and critique’s of Barbara Erasmus’ debut novel, I came across her WordPress website and was gratified in finding some qualified opinions on the book.
Jen Crocker, a freelance writer based in Cape Town, had this to say about Kaleidoscope. She felt that the novel was “powerful and absorbing” and emphasised the story’s roots in the strained relationship between “two very different sisters”.
Janet van Eeden made a very good point when she mentioned that this novel was a refreshing exception to the literary norm in shifting focus away from stories related to apartheid in South Africa.
And Dr C Lombard, a psychologist at the Unica School for Learners with Autism in Pretoria (mentioned in the novel) is complementary in his impressions on Kaleidoscope;
“Autism is an extremely complex disorder that is rarely understood unless people have been exposed to its victims or have done a vast amount of research. On reading Kaleidoscope, I was quite amazed at the incredible insight Erasmus has developed concerning the minds of people with Asperger’s Syndrome. I believe Kaleidoscope will make a truly significant difference as regards society’s awareness and understanding of Asperger Syndrome.”
And, perhaps Darold Treffert, author of Extraordinary People – An Exploration of the Savant Syndrome, gives a very accurate depiction of the two sisters, the autistic child and the story;
“Claire is ice blue, triangular, beautiful. Her speciality is lists, she remembers them verbatim. Katherine is red, multi-angled, a chameleon slipping into whatever role she is playing and making it seem authentic. Amy won’t let anyone cross her boundaries, she is a butterfly that has folded her wings and crept back into her cocoon. Kaleidoscope is a novel about shifting perspectives within a family brought about by the birth of an autistic child.”
Kaleidoscope, short enough to be read over a few days, is engaging enough for me to seek out Barbara Erasmus’ subsequent novels which I look forward to reading sometime later this year.
* Look out for a review on Karen Jaye’s phenomenal story For the Mercy of Water