Genre: Literary Fiction
Published: Epoque Press, May 2021
My Rating: 3/5 stars
“We live and walk upon these stories. She, least least, returns to me, having spurned the bird’s enticement. I couldn’t bear losing another.”
We all know I’m always on the hunt for good disability-fiction (especially by disabled authors), so the Barbellion Prize has been a treasure trove of inspiration for me since its first rendition in 2021. One of the few nominees on that list I hadn’t managed to get my hands on yet, was What Willow Says. With its incredibly high 4.2 average rating on Goodreads, and nothing but positive reviews from people I trust, I was expecting this to be a new favourite. It wasn’t…
Don’t mistake my 3-star rating for critique of the disability representation in this book: that was actually the aspect I really did enjoy. It was just the rest of it that didn’t work for me.
Our narrative follows two unnamed protagonists; a granddaughter and the grandmother she lives with. The novel is formatted through journal entries, written by the grandmother, documenting their experiences exploring the woods and bogs around their hometown and bonding over their shared love of nature. What complicates and intensifies their bond, is the fact that the granddaughter is deaf, and they communicate exclusively through a sign-language of their own invention, as the grandmother struggles to learn BSL.
Many of their interactions show aspects of the deaf-experience through the lens of nature- and bog-mythology. Just one example is present in the title: the daughters asking her grandma on describe the “language” the willow-trees make.
My main issue with the novel was the writing. For such a short novella, with an intimate scope, a “less-is-more” approach to style would’ve felt appropriate. Especially considering we’re supposedly reading the journal entries written by the grandmother. Conversely, What Willow Says is extremely overwritten. It’s prose is thick as bog-peat, often employing unnaturally complicated word-choices that make it feel like the whole text was run through a thesaurus-application to “make it more literary”. Considering its themes of language, this may well have been intentional, but for me it made the book feel cumbersome at best and borderline unreadable at worst.
Overall it’s a book that I’d recommend from a disability-fiction perspective, but as a novel in itself, it wasn’t for me.
You can find this book here on Goodreads.