Review #3: Sensitive by Allayne L. Webster Published by University of Queensland Press
“Stories transcend time and space, continents and hearts.”
You’re right, Allayne, they do, and few authors make that journey as well as you.
Allayne Webster has written novels that take us into the heart of a homeless boy in Paris or the fears of a young child in Bosnia but with Sensitive she takes us across a divide even greater than that of poverty or war: the chasm that separates the abled from the disabled.
Samantha, or SJ as she insists on being called, is thirteen, new to town and determined to reinvent herself. She’s self-conscious, impatient with her mother, sarcastic, loving and one of the most accurate portrayals of a teenage girl I have read. In the course of the book she moves to a new town, attempts to reinvent herself, makes friends, has a reciprocated—if complicated—crush on a cute boy and realises that her mother—annoying though she is—does love her.
She also spends months on an exclusion diet, suffers an uncontrollable weight gain and nearly dies—twice—from allergies and chronic eczema. The details od SJ’s condition are woven into the story naturally, always told from the young girl’s perspective so that facts like the effect of steroids, the difficulties of not itching, the dangers of septicaemia all enter our consciousness something we have lived, not just learnt. We may not really know what SJ faces but when we finish this book, but we are starting to get an idea.
Yet it was Webster’s inclusion of the non-medical problems that made the biggest impact on me. I live with a completely different type of disability, but I too have had the experience of not being able to do anything without planning it first. SJ’s complaint that she can’t buy a dress for herself but must think of what parts of her eczema it will cover is an explanation of one of the hardest parts of being disabled. SJ is trapped by her eczema and in the daily effort of SJ’s ordinary life Webster shows us how privileged we are when we are ‘normal.’
Another part of the story that resonated with me was the strangers asking SJ if she’s tried this cream or that food, of the constant attempts to fix the problem. It would have been easy to find a cure but Webster’s story doesn’t take the Hollywood way out. Instead of a magic cure, SJ finds a voice. A voice that, like her creator, she will use to tell us the truth.
This a beautiful book about a difficult problem. For those living with a disability it offers understanding, to those who are ‘normal’ it offers illumination, and to all of us it delivers a story to touch your heart.