A Grand And Looping Novel
Kimberly 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). Continue reading