It is very difficult to dislike Roopa Farooki's novels. They are as eager to please as puppies, and who doesn't like puppies, at least hypothetically? The Way Things Look to Me, her third novel, may be quite different in subject matter to her first Bitter Sweets (which was shortlisted for the Orange New Writer's Prize in 2007) but it has the same feel to it: a playful, boundless energy and a firmly positive outlook. The synopsis might not read that way - young woman with Asperger's syndrome decides to take decisive action to relieve her family of the burden of looking after her - and as the book opens its main characters are sunk in a state of melancholia. But read just fifty more pages and you'll see what I mean.
Asif Murphy is 23 years old, an accountant and sole guardian to his younger sister Yasmin. Every night he arrives home at precisely the same time; every morning he gets up and prepares a breakfast entirely composed of yellow food; he makes no sudden decisions or changes to his routine. All this because Yasmin is on the autistic spectrum and requires that her life (and his) follow strict undisturbed patterns. No doubt the self-denial and selflessness it requires contributes to his last of confidence: I am what I am, he muses, not special or flawed or creative, just unimpressive, dull as dishwater, little old neutral old nothing old me.
Asif doesn't just compare himself unfavourably to Yasmin, with her powerful memory and ability to see music as colour, but also to his other sister Lila. They couldn't be more different. Whereas Asif has toned and shaped his life to fit to Yasmin's requirements, Lila has wilfully misshapen hers to offend them. Living in virtual squalor in a tiny flat, drifting from boyfriend to boyfriend and from one dead-end job to another, she turns up at the old family home from time-to-time intent on invading Yasmin's personal space. She is disgusted by Asif's willingness to accept their sister's 'condition', believing that she is nothing more or less than a spoilt baby who cruelly manipulates those around her for attention. While Asif's response to living with Yasmin is self-abnegation and a burning desire to please, Lila's is spitting fury. Both are haunted my memories of their overshadowed childhoods, of the ways in which Yasmin stole their parents, and their innocence, from them.
These polarised responses, fuelled by loss and anger, are brought into sharp focus when a documentary maker approaches the family to make a programme about Yasmin's 'talents'. The filming is an unexpected catalyst for change in all three siblings, bringing an unexpected romance into Lila's life and a newfound sense of independence for Asif. Yasmin too is changed by it, inexorably, as she is forced to confront the world around her and her place in it.
I suppose you could describe the story that follows as 'heart-warming', although the word is probably a disservice. Farooki is a confident stylist, and while her characters always have the flavour of stereotype about them, her writing and narrative voice is so blythe and honest that it is impossible not to be swept along by it. I'm not one for quirky romance, but I found myself invested in the burgeoning relationship between the spiky, confrontational Lila and Henry, the blind TV researcher; and I'm not one for simplistic personal revelations either, but I still wanted Asif to realise his self-worth by the end of the book. I ploughed through the pages of my large-print library copy (the only one they had) with merry abandon, only occasionally wanting more than what was on offer.
Admittedly I was disappointed with Farooki's portrayal of Yasmin, who is little more than a cardboard cut out of a person with Asperger Syndrome. The alternate chapters told in her first person voice were the clumsiest parts of the book, and frankly discomforting in their predictability. By that I mean, Yasmin had no individuality. You could have swapped her out of the novel and replaced her with the protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. No-one would have been any the wiser, probably not even Asif or Lila. The most interesting thing about her is what others think of her - Lila's long-held belief that she is a 'faker', or Asif's vision of her as a fragile, vulnerable child, or Henry's perspective on her special gifts. She acts most successfully as a mirror and amplifier for the other characters' emotional uncertainties, self-doubts and fixations. On her own she ends up being what most autistic or Asperger's characters are in fiction and film: an eccentric, with a disjointed turn of phrase. This is a real shame, and detracts from the power of the novel's ending.
Having said that, I have to come back to those puppies. I don't think I could ever bring myself to write overly critically about Farooki. My head tells me this is against my better judgement - that The Way Things Look to Me could be easily picked apart - but my heart isn't in it. There is something so irrepressible about its forward drive, something so decidedly pleasant about the experience of reading it, that I would feel disingenuous. I would feel ungrateful for the momentary pleasure it had given me. Which is why, even though I wouldn't have put it anywhere near the Orange shortlist, I'm glad I've read it on the longlist. A heart-warming glow isn't nothing.