This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech

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This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech

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Buy This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: Highly moving and richly observed, this novel defies easy categorisation.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 300 Date: June 2021
Publisher: Orenda
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1913193713

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Veronica is a devoted single mother to her son, Sebastian - but she can't give him everything he wants. Sebastian has decided that it's time for him to have sex. But as an autistic 20 year-old, that's easier said than done. And it's starting to cause them both problems.

Out of ideas, Veronica decides that hiring a prostitute might be the solution. Enter Isabelle - a nursing student also working as an escort. She might be just the person they need...

Sometimes a premise really does grab you. This was such an unusual one, and so complex, that I couldn't help but dive in. It's the sort of issue I'm only passingly familiar with, but one with all sorts of potential implications. This story really could go anywhere.

I wasn't surprised to learn that this was inspired by real events - Beech has very clearly been thorough in her research. It's upfront, often embarrassingly so. And something this book makes painstakingly clear is just how difficult looking after someone with autism can be, particularly for a single parent. What really hooked me, very early on, was the starkness of Veronica's inability to deal with this problem that's starting to consume her entire life. It becomes apparent that Sebastian is a huge fan of shows like Love Island; it's fueled what has become an obsession, and he has few boundaries in this regard - to the point that he's crossed the line numerous times with girls who are often much younger than himself.

Can anyone really blame him for becoming so obsessed, though, when our society itself is so sex-obsessed? The thing is that this sort of situation is something that is so rarely talked about, and yet it must happen all the time. No-one is entitled to sex, but everyone is entitled to intimacy and affection. And the implications of that are as pervasive as they are profound.

This is only half of the story, though, for all that it's an incredibly strong premise. Because this is Isabelle's story, ultimately, and this setup is just how we get to know her. And I'm glad this was the case; for her to have been a prop or a supporting character would have left a bad taste in my mouth (and I suspect a lot of other readers too). But her character and her arc are both skilfully crafted; we see how she became an escort, and why, and what she has to endure as part of that. I have to admit I underestimated TIHWAH in this regard; I expected it to hold back when it came to some of the nastier elements but it never did, and it is brutally frank about how much ugliness there is in this world. Even the vilest characters in this (and there are a couple who really are utterly contemptible) elicit a regretful modicum of pity.

If there's a single theme that defines this book, I would say that it's connection. That's what sparks the plot, after all, and it's what motivates everyone we meet in the story - the desire to connect, the instinct to be close and to protect those bonds. And the connection between Veronica and Isabelle is one that's abstract, but ultimately simple; they're two women trying to do right by their family.

And ultimately - ironically - that wish for closeness is my one major gripe with this novel. I wish so badly that the entirety of the book had been told in a first-person voice, rather than the third-person narration we get for Isabelle and Veronica. Most of the book is told via the two women, with a handful of first-person chapters from Sebastian, and while I appreciated the unique voice this gave him I couldn't help wanting more. I wanted to be as close to the characters as I possibly could be, and I felt that the emotional impact of so much of the book was diluted by not giving the other two main characters - particularly Isabelle - an internal narrative too. If this had been the case, I feel certain TIHWAH would have been infinitely stronger than it already is.

This was exactly the kind of story I like: stories about the people on the margins of life, stories about difficult emotional quandaries, stories about people overcoming all kinds of adversity. If you like the sound of that, you might enjoy Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney - it's an old favourite of mine.

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