By Jacqueline Grima
Disabled protagonists are few and far between in contemporary literature and indeed, when I flipped through my mental inventory of the many, many books I have read, I could barely think of one. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time? Blind Mr Rochester at the end of Jane Eyre? I have no doubt there are quite a few more, but, not much of a list off the top of my head, is it?
In R F Hunt’s debut novel, The Single Feather, published in February 2014 by Scottish independent publisher Pilrig Press, we meet 31-year-old Rachel, a paraplegic wheelchair user, who, in an attempt to escape the demons of her past, moves to the small fictional village of Carthom, her only allies there seeming to be her mum and her carer, Janine. Feeling isolated, Rachel attempts to increase her independence by joining a local art group and it is within this community group that she soon finds friendship as well as a creative outlet in her painting.
As well as finding solace amongst her new friends, however, Rachel also faces antagonism, outdated attitudes towards disability and even prejudice on a daily basis, Hunt successfully showing the reader how lack of knowledge regarding disability can impact strongly upon the life of a disabled person. Despite her polite protestations, Rachel is pushed in her wheelchair by Albert, an elderly member of the group, constantly has her hair ruffled as if she were a child and is tutted at and consistently referred to as ‘handicapped’ by Anne, the group’s self-appointed leader. Some members of the art group also have strong opinions regarding so-called ‘scroungers’ who live on benefits. Feeling vulnerable and fearing alienation, Rachel finds it difficult to voice her objections to what she is hearing, the traumatic past she is also keeping to herself alongside the reasons for her disability, preventing her from becoming a fully confident member of the group.
Hunt soon makes it clear, however, that Rachel’s past is not the only secret amongst the art group members and it is only when some of the other members reveal their own hopes, fears and disappointments that Rachel, and the reader, realise that many of them are also hiding reasons to feel vulnerable, a revelation that has a big impact on the protagonist. When tragedy strikes, the art group realises that they must pull together or disband forever.
In The Single Feather, R F Hunt, a writer who has herself experienced the life-changing impact of sudden disability and who runs a support site for disabled people at www.thesinglefeather.com , shows how a disabled person’s existence can be impacted upon by the attitude and actions of the people around them and how the dispelling of myths that often surround the most vulnerable members of society is a crucial step in our understanding of disability. As Rachel says, in a quote that Hunt accredits to 13th century Persian poet Rumi, which originally gave her the idea for the book, ‘With friends you grow wings, Alone, You are a single feather in disgrace…’, showing how all of our lives are defined by our relationships with others. The Single Feather is available now at www.pilrigpress.co.uk and from Amazon.
Jacqueline Grima is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing whilst also trying to find a publisher for her novel ‘Coming Second’ which was shortlisted for the 2014 Luke Bitmead Bursary. She is also a mum of three, a reluctant dog owner and a Foo Fighters fan.