What Is Visible – Kimberly Elkins (2014, Twelve, Hachette Book Group, New York)
In What is Visible, writer Kimberly Elkins turns the biography of the famed Laura Bridgman on its head, giving voice to the first deaf-blind person in the world to learn language. (And, boy, does she give it: as the main narrator, Laura displays petulance, arrogance, naiveté, gravity and wit – sometimes all at once). While much of the book stays true to the facts – towards the end of her life, Laura did actually meet Helen Keller, for example, and she made a huge impression on writer Charles Dickens – Elkins toys with the grand possibilities: what if Laura had fallen in love? What if she regained any of her senses, even partially? What if she was deeply affected by the religious and political views of Victorian-era America?
Woven into Laura’s story is that of the people most influential in her life: Dr. Samuel Howe, who brought her to Perkins Institute and paraded her abilities in order to drum up support for his school, his wife Julia, who wrote poetry and worked tirelessly for the suffragette movement and the abolition of slavery, and Sarah Wight, Laura’s teacher and companion over several years. Again, Elkins offers up some delicious twists: love affairs that may or may not have occurred, and personal details that have never been documented…all within the framework of a time of political and religious upheaval, and revolutionary developments in science and technology.
What is obvious is that What is Visible is a masterpiece of a debut novelist: this fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bridgman is astonishing in scope and impeccably researched and delivered.