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Before I Saw You by Emily Houghton.


Alice and Alfie are strangers. But they sleep next to each other every night.

Alfie Mack has been in hospital for months recovering from an accident. A new face on the ward is about as exciting as life gets for him right now, so when someone moves into the bed next to him he’s eager to make friends. But it quickly becomes clear that seeing his neighbour’s face won’t happen any time soon.

Alice Gunnersley has been badly burned and can’t even look at herself yet, let alone allow anyone else to see her. She keeps the curtain around her bed firmly closed, but it doesn’t stop Alfie trying to get to know her. And gradually, as he slowly brings Alice out of her shell, might there even be potential for more?

This book has some wonderful characters that it’s very easy to fall in love with. Alfie, who is recovering from an amputation is delighted to be getting a new neighbour in his hospital bay. The bay has a happy, friendly, atmosphere with a close knit group of patients convalescing over a long stay in the unit. On Sundays Alfie’s mum and dad come in with a Sunday dinner for everyone! However, a happy and chatty bay is exactly what Alice dreads. She doesn’t want to socialise or have a natter with other people. They’d have to see her and she doesn’t want that. In fact the ward sister, Nurse Angles, has to make a promise in order to get her moved into the ward. When she has to go down to physiotherapy, everyone else in the ward will have their curtains closed. Not everyone is happy about it, but they all promise Nurse Angles because she’s so hard to refuse. Alfie is undeterred though, he has always been a cheerful little soul and makes it his mission to get Alice talking.

The thing I enjoyed most about this was that the author didn’t just concentrate on the physical damage done by their accidents. She makes it clear that the emotional scars are potentially even more damaging and more difficult to manage because they can’t be seen. Alfie wakes up screaming some nights and sweating, hoping he hasn’t woken the whole ward. For him there’s the addition of survivor’s guilt, because he wasn’t the only one in the accident where he lost his leg. She describes his journey thus far to make it clear that it isn’t as easy as strapping on a prosthetic and becoming a Paralympian! That meant a lot to me as someone with a disability who works as a counsellor with people who have a chronic illness or disability. Many people don’t realise the healing that has to happen, that getting used to a prosthetic means chafing to the skin, possible skin breakdown, and pain in the leg, but also the rest of the body as it gets used to moving in a different way. Mentally, he will have to get used to a change in how others see him, how he sees himself and his masculinity. We all have an image of what we look like in our head. When you acquire a disability, as opposed to being born with one, that self-image remains the same until you catch sight of yourself in a mirror or window. That’s a pivotal moment, because the new reality of how you look can be a shock. Alfie has had to let go of that image, and is building up a new sense of self that includes his disability.

Alice has to take the same psychological journey, arguably more difficult because she’s a woman. Once Alfie gets used to his prosthetic, and improves his mobility, people may not realise he has a disability. Alice’s burns are on her face and hands. There’s nothing she can do to cover them up completely and this affects everything – not just dealing with the change herself but dealing with how others now see her. It will change how she feels as a woman, and she will worry about whether men will see her as desirable. We hear a lot of Alice’s inner monologue so we really do get the enormity if what has happened to her. I felt choked up for Alice. It’s a really big deal if Alfie can get her talking. There’s a point when he needs comfort and Alice gives him her hand under the curtain. This us Alice trusting him, her hands are damaged and she’s openly giving them to him, which shows an enormous amount of trust. She seems all alone in the world. She hasn’t even let her best friend know because she’s living so far away. Her mother eventually arrives though, and shows within seconds why Alice wouldn’t want her to visit. When Sarah does find out she arrives like a whirlwind of love and care for her best friend.

I’ve had long stays on hospital rehabilitation wards and I’ve never experienced one like this. There are some aspects of hospital life that would never happen on any of the rehab wards I’ve stayed on recently, such as the Sunday dinner. Although, one I stayed on in the late 1990s let my parents bring my dog to the day room for cuddles once a week. I did recognise Nurse Angles though – she seems formidable but really she cares deeply for her patients. I’ve come across the odd matron or ward sister who is like this – one particularly fierce German night nurse, during a long stay in 1995, used to bark at everyone and seem very strict, but would let my hospital friend Tony and me, stay up late to watch the rugby World Cup. She even brought us illicit toast and tea when it was quiet! I think the strength of this novel is in its characters. I enjoyed Alfie’s mum, who is a force of nature albeit a kind one. Alfie is like a big puppy, playful and clumsy but ultimately good and kind. Alice is more complicated and it’s interesting peeling away each layer like an onion. Her accident and subsequent injuries are transformative and I kept thinking how lucky she was to have ended up in a bed next to Alfie, who seems to spread happiness, despite the difficulties he faces physically and mentally. These characters kept me reading. They felt real to me. I also really appreciated the author’s obvious understanding of the psychology of acquired disability. Despite heavy subject matter the author managed to keep a light, easy feel to the novel and that’s a difficult thing to achieve. I found myself rooting for both of them and sorry when their story ended.

Meet The Author

Emily Houghton was a digital specialist, but is now a full-time creative writer. She originally comes from Essex but now lives in London. Emily is a trained yoga and spin teacher, completely obsessed with dogs and has dreamt of being an author ever since she could hold a pen.


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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