I absolutely loved this incredible book about love, disability, sex and the secrets we keep from each other. Veronica and her son Sebastian live together in Hull. Veronica wants the best for her son and just like all parents, she wants him to grow up and have a full life. However, Veronica isn’t like other parents, because despite Sebastian being twenty years, six months and two days old, he’s struggling with the love and relationships part of his life. Seb is autistic and he is lonely. Seb loves swimming, his fish, fried eggs and Billy Ocean, he’d also love to have sex but no one will have sex with him. He’s already been in trouble after the girl next door convinced him to write an explicit letter to her underage sister. When their lives collide with Violetta, Veronica thinks she can see a way forward. She’s thought of paying someone before, but has stopped herself. Here though, is someone they’ve met before and who was natural with Seb. Veronica couldn’t have known she was leading a double life as a high class escort, in order to earn enough money to keep her seriously ill father at home. These three lives come together and change each other in unexpected ways.
There were scenes in this that made me laugh and some that made me cry. His need for sexual release is having a huge impact on his carefully ordered life. His swimming sessions have continued at the same time and day of the week, all the way from childhood, but his inability to see why his nakedness is different to the children’s has meant they must stop. When Veronica takes Seb to the sexual health clinic, because she’s desperate for advice, their lack of help and understanding infuriated me. The nurse seemed more concerned about whether Seb might hurt someone, or how Veronica’s thoughts about paying for it would be harming him. She even threatens to report her to social services. There’s no compassion or admission that they really don’t know what to do. It’s an issue I’ve thought about for a long time, having supported people with learning difficulties or autistic spectrum disorders in an advocacy role. Sadly, the figures for sexual violence against women with learning disabilities are terrifyingly high. While young people are often infantilised by parents who don’t want to accept their child is an adult. I read many years ago about an initiative in Holland very like our Direct Payments/Personal Budget system for care if you have a disability. However, social workers could add a component that would pay for the disabled person (physical disabilities) to hire a sex worker if they needed that for an sexual outlet. As Seb himself says:
‘People seem to get dead upset about it. But it’s just like paying for swimming lessons. You want to learn to do it and someone who knows how to will show you for an agreed fee’.
He sees it as a simple business transaction. Offsetting the worry, sadness and anger I felt in their behalf it’s Seb’s frankness that brings the humour. His mother greets him in the morning with a cheery ‘what do you want to do today?’ and his reply is ‘I want to have sex’. He goes on to explain that he might pay for sex:
‘If I was rich. But I’m not. I’ll just have to find someone who appreciates me before I die. I hope it’s this week. I’m feeling very sexual today.’
Seb is such a loveable and interesting character. He’s also handsome, so does draw attention from women when out and about, but Veronica knows that as soon as he speaks they will start to lose interest. She meets with Violetta and proposes her plan. However, there are real ethical concerns here and everyone is keeping secrets. Veronica isn’t planning on telling Seb the truth about his ‘sessions’ with Violetta, but she isn’t planning on telling Seb she’s been hired or why she needs the money. Seb has his own secrets and there is an ending to this that neither woman envisaged, showing a prejudice they didn’t know they had. They’ve discussed concerns that Seb may become attached to his tutor, but they didn’t imagine that she might become compromised in some way or that Seb might transfer his affections to someone new.
This is brave new ground in fiction. I have a physical disability, and I can count on one hand books that have a disabled character who openly discusses or explores their sexuality. This is almost society’s last taboo – the sexual disabled body is not to be looked at or mentioned. This is partly about the infantilisation of people with disabilities, they need care and are therefore vulnerable and untouchable. It’s partly to do with an innate reflex to reject what is different – often the fear of urine bags, colostomy bags, and other paraphernalia is so great, that the person becomes neutral to other people and they close their minds to the fact that this person is a sexual being. We saw this prejudice in action with the controversy around Marc Quinn’s statue of Alison Lapper. Not only was this a disabled woman who was naked, she was also pregnant. People rejected her body strongly, calling it ugly and disgusting. However, I think a large part of the furore was down to people being uncomfortable that Lapper’s pregnancy was a visual clue of a healthy sex life. Most of the same people would probably be uncomfortable with this book, but I was so excited to see the issue out in the open. We need to talk about it more. People with disabilities are having sex, often more adventurous and inventive sex, because they have to communicate more and find a way round their disability. It’s only by talking about it that we start to break down these prejudices and accept that a healthy sex life is a normal part of life for all adults able to consent. This was a difficult subject, handled with frankness, but also the greatest care and sensitivity. I’m so grateful that this talented writer turned her hand to this subject, writing characters that felt utterly real and incredibly relatable. It was funny, moving, and full of love, of every kind.
Meet The Author
Louise Beech is an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015. The follow-up, The Mountain in My Shoe was shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize. Both of her previous books Maria in the Moon and The Lion Tamer Who Lost were widely reviewed, critically acclaimed and number-one bestsellers on Kindle. The Lion Tamer Who Lost was shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award in 2019. Her 2019 novel Call Me Star Girl won Best magazine Book of the Year, and was followed by I Am Dust.