My mind is not like a neat and tidy garden; it is a vast untidy wilderness, full of irrelevancies, but with lots of places to wander and get lost,” states Yasmin Murphy in recognition of her Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and synesthesia. The 19-year old is the youngest of the three Murphy orphans and the fulcrum of Roopa Farooki’s fourth novel published in the United States, the character-driven The Way Things Look to Me.
Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is a mystifying state of being for those who do not have it. Classified as an autism spectrum disorder, it manifests itself through a lack of proper social interaction coupled with repetitive actions, behaviors, and interests that become all-consuming. Spontaneity and change are causes for extreme distress. Asperger’s differs from other autism categories because it impairs neither language nor learning capabilities.
Synesthesia, a lesser-known condition with over 60 variations, is the uncontrollable heightening of the senses and the translation of sounds, sights, movement, and/or emotions into colors, stripes, bubbles, and other expressive outlets. Numbers or letters are assigned specific colors. Music elicits swirls and waves. Distance and space may even apply themselves to days of the week or months of the year.
Farooki’s voyage into AS, with a side helping of synesthesia, is a complicated, edgy family affair that digs deeply into wounds that were unintentionally inflicted early in the lives of the two oldest siblings because of Yasmin’s rigid world.
Asif, 23, is the family overseer, the one who took responsibility for the family when their mother passed away. A rising star at Cambridge, he gave up his studies and a successful future to become Yasmin’s caregiver. Yet, despite being the head of the family, he suffers from an excruciating lack of self esteem. Lila, 22, is the family rebel, the artist who lives an outward life on what she thinks are her own terms. She runs wild, suppressing her talents, as she strives to avoid becoming Yasmin’s caregiver. And she suffers from an agonizing case of eczema that she painstakingly hides from the world.
Yasmin, the youngest sister, is the one who sees life at its most frustratingly literal. Asif and Lila represent both sides of the Yasmin issue—obligation and rejection—and the novel presents a moving, duality-based study of this trio as they cope with each other while a documentary is being filmed about Yasmin.
Farooki chose AS for thoughtful reasons in her quest to construct a young family grappling with growing up and achieving harmony without adult guidance.
“I specifically wanted to explore a situation where all the siblings weren’t treated equally—I knew that the youngest sister would have to be ‘special’ in some way, to merit special treatment from her parents beyond that sometimes accorded to the baby of the family,”
Farooki said in an e-interview.
But why Asperger’s specifically?
“I also knew it couldn’t be an obvious physical disability or even a traditional disability at all, as that would make it hard to keep sympathy with the siblings as they struggle with their feelings of resentment. [Asperger’s Syndrome] … allowed Yasmin to be academically successful, self-aware, and highly functional, but her different way of interacting with the world still made it necessary for her to have full time care.”
Wrestling with conflicted feelings about themselves and each other, Asif and Lila deal with their truncated lives as best they know how. Neither is living the life they had hoped for or wanted. They fret, fume, and beat themselves up internally and emotionally. Constantly struggling with the subtext of his name, “As If,” Asif often wonders why his mother never told him that she loved him. Lila, once awarded a scholarship to a prestigious school, deliberately creates a life as unlike her home environment as possible.
Yasmin, entirely unaware of her brother’s and sister’s inner conflicts, goes about her daily routine without batting an eyelash, never expecting or being able to manage change. She is perfectly bright—albeit lacking in certain critical thinking skills—and able to pass her A levels at school, but she is devoid of social graces outside of actions she was taught. Yasmin perceives everything in the plainest and most exacting terms, but when she slowly begins to make her own decisions affecting change, her family is too self-absorbed to notice until it’s too late.
Challenging herself in scope, topic, and theme, Farooki never fails to produce a mesmerizing novel. She has the ability to remain a storyteller first without a hint of sentimentality toward her characters even when the reader feels great compassion for them. In The Way Things Look to Me, she took an enormous risk with AS, but her meticulous research prior to writing was rewarded with favorable reviews by Psychology Today magazine and Action for Autism.
“To be honest, I did far too much research—I read everything I could get hold of, spoke to educators in the AS community and used my personal experience of those I knew with AS,” Farooki explains. “The research was paralyzing, as for about six months afterwards, I felt that I couldn’t write a word from Yasmin’s viewpoint … I was too afraid that I’d find myself fictionalizing someone else’s real life experience, and that Yasmin wouldn’t be her own character.”
So how did she forge ahead with Yasmin?
“I forced myself to think how she would think, what she would observe, and what she wouldn’t, and write it down as a long and never-ending list, a constant round of detailed snapshots of seemingly unimportant minutiae, that eventually formed into coherence. So Yasmin was informed by the research, but her personality and voice grew out of my own imagination and observations.”
Asif, Lila, and Yasmin are characters that linger long after the story is finished and, in a bookishly-selfish way, hang around to remind us that our own situations may not be as insurmountable as we think. In short, the Murphys walk right off the page and into your heart.
Farooki’s grasp of her characters’ contradictory perceptions and thought processes is honest and deep. She paints vivid and vibrant pictures of how an invisible condition, a damaged childhood, and an abridged path to adulthood have an impact for life. She is masterful at showing the way things look to her characters, yet she offers that glimmer of hope everyone needs in order to survive the worst.
“I’m an optimist when it comes to human relationships,” she states simply, “and I wanted to create a world in this novel where good things happen to good people, and where those who are less good can still hope to be redeemed.”
Farooki’s next novel, The Flying Man, is scheduled to be published in the U.K. in early 2012.
The Way Things Look to Me was longlisted for the Impac Dublin Literary Award 2011 and for the Orange Prize in 2010, and the novel was voted one of The Times Top 50 Paperbacks of 2009.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes from Wake Forest, NC.