A Review of What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins

A Grand And Looping Novel

418d0LnIYNLKimberly Elkins, What Is Visible (New York: Twelve, 2014)

Elkins’ imaginative and historically rich novel, What Is Visible gives readers immediate access to the world and perception of Laura Bridgman, the first woman to learn language from the efforts of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who founded the Perkins School for the Blind. Bridgman lost four of her five senses after recovering from Scarlet Fever at age two and arrived at the Perkins Institute when she was seven years old. She became one of the most famous women of the 19th century, yet her celebrity and accomplishments were eclipsed in history by Helen Keller’s.

Elkins’ Laura is a powerful force; her personality emerges instantly on the page fully formed, commanding attention with a distinct and unforgettable voice. She is the primary narrator of the novel, and while every author makes indispensable choices in respect to perspective, tense, and structure, Elkins’ choice of title points to what also is an unavoidable, moral decision: in order to render Laura’s story authentically and with dignity, a narrative in which readers may participate fully, the reader must experience it from Laura’s perspective. This is Elkins’ great achievement. Although Elkins includes other narrative perspectives, What Is Visible, is to my reckoning, ultimately narrated by and for Laura. It’s her story, the story Laura would tell if she were permitted to so:

I want to write out everything—for me, for her—but I am denied the pleasure, or pain, of ever being able to read my own words. You will be able to read them, but I will not. So I write this out into the air, in a grand and looping script, that what is invisible to man may be visible to God (299-300).

Other fascinating characters contribute and add vivid texture and context to the novel and contribute their narrative perspective: Doctor Howe and his wife, Julia Ward Howe, the abolitionist, suffragist, and writer, and Sarah Wight, Laura’s friend and teacher, who eventually marries a missionary and moves to the Sandwich Islands. These narrators are surrounded by further notable persons from American history such as the young Helen Keller and Keller’s famous teacher and companion, Annie Sullivan, Dorothea Dix, and Charles Sumner, the United States senator from Massachusetts and leader of the radical anti-slavery faction in Congress.

The novel has some compelling elements as a work of historical fiction, and I am impressed with the extensive and careful historical research Elkins carried out and wove into the novel. Elkins drew extensively on primary resources to gain insight into the lives and dynamics of the relationships that existed among Laura, Dr. Howe, Julia Howe, and Sarah as well as the cultural upheavals and society thriving around Laura. The Howes are difficult characters to care for and even sometimes like. Although Laura benefited from Dr. Howe’s efforts and attention, she was greatly isolated. Elkins reveals how complex a relationship Laura shared with her physician, teacher, moral guide, and love object. In contrast, Julia Ward Howe represents an antagonistic force in Laura’s life and in the dramatic arc of the novel. The relationship between the two women is never easy, but over time grows and matures. By the time the novels ends, the reader experiences a change of emotion toward Julia Ward Howe, whereas, the reader gains a deeper understanding of the complexity of her husband. Elkins does not permit any of her characters to suffer from a lack of depth. The focus, however, always reverts to Laura. While I grew sympathetic with Julia Ward Howe’s life and her character, I became more and more astonished at the personage of Laura. They share a moment at Laura’s 50th birthday party when Laura marvels at all the gifts people have brought for her. Laura reflects to herself:

Still, I would like to be a present for the crowd. That’s what I hope they will think of me: a present to them all from God, to show how little one can possess of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity. I am a gift, though only one ever dared unwrap me (296).

Elkins describes her task as balancing what Thomas Mallon refers to as the “what might have happened as well model” of historical fiction (301) in her search for “the realest Laura Bridgman” (307). Detractors who prefer a more sanitized vision of Bridgman and the Howes shouldn’t look too closely to primary sources and the reality of human behavior and yearning. Laura is brought to life so vividly, she is heartbreakingly luminous.

Find out more about Kimberly Elkins at kimberlyelkins.com

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2 thoughts on “A Review of What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins

    1. Thank you, Jolene! What a great compliment. It’s a fine read. I opened it up after pulling it from the box, read the beginning…and that was it. I read ¾ in one sitting. I love it when a book reaches out and grabs me like that. Enjoy!

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