Disclaimer 1: A spoke in the wheel was sent to me by the author, Kathleen Jowitt, in exchange for an honest review.
Disclaimer 2: All views about disability are my own and are based purely on my own experiences. I have Cerebral Palsy Spastic Diplegia and predominantly use a wheelchair. When not in my chair, I use tripod walking sticks to stand and walk for short distances.
Representation of wheelchair users, and disability in general, is scarce. However, it is also something that I do not actively seek out. I am a firm believer that no two people read the same book; we bring our own beliefs, experiences, personalities, privileges and much more to the reading experience. For me, I fear that disabled characters will fall into one of three categories, making me cross and or embarrassed that we are seen in such a way.
I am a wheelchair user. It’s not something that I explicitly state about myself, it seems unnecessary, but I don’t shy away from the fact, or mentioning if it seems relevant – like now. I don’t know if Kathleen Jowitt knew this when she approached me about reviewing her second book A spoke in the wheel the story of disgraced professional cyclist Ben Goddard and the two women with whom he forms a relationship. One of these women, Polly, uses a wheelchair.
I was hesitant for this exact reason at first and, initially, the first two chapters were hard to get through. I was concerned about some of the phrasing choices.
‘…she had claimed the one on the ground floor, for obvious reasons. “Doors I can fit the chair through, too”. I was less fussy.’ (Boldness added by me for emphasis for the purposes of this post)
Due to my own hang-ups, I convinced myself that these were the choices of purely the author. Having overcome my baggage and subsequently finishing the rest of the book in one day, I can say with complete certainty and with a great deal of happiness that I was wrong. I want to apologise to Kathleen for allowing myself to make such a snap judgement. Such phrases were part of an exceptional character development arc.
This self-published novel is a testament to focusing on character development and using that to drive the story. One of the categories in which I see disabled characters is the bitter individuals who see the world as relentlessly out to get them. Of course, some days are terrible, being disabled can make you feel very restricted, stuck, and annoyed – that’s very normal. However, the assertion by authors that this is the only way we ever feel and the subsequent creation of characters who spend entire novels being cross, unapproachable, and angry makes me somewhat uncomfortable.
Having read, including this novel, only two books with wheelchair-using characters (both of which were really very good), maybe I am being unfair. However, it is hard not to hear these stereotypes a lot and I become concerned about how such views impact how people interact with us. We are introduced to Polly while she is exuding anger and defensiveness. My initial reaction was of disappointment and resignation, however, reflecting back I can see that this was not the default mood of Polly the disabled women but of Polly the disappointed cycling fan – for this I am very grateful.
Polly’s disability was one of the main features of this novel, as was cycling. However, neither of these were the central themes; indeed this was not a book about cycling or disability. Instead, cycling was the shared interest, the bonding experience that bought the trio together. The focus is on redemption, improvement, belonging, and discovering who you are in spite of expectations and pressure. It is about owning and acknowledging your past wrong-doings but not allowing it to become your identifier. A lot of stories talk about the fall of heroes but Jowitt writes a more original story: the upward struggle for redemption.
Cycling was an interesting choice of shared interest but it created many an exciting parallel and enabled clear illustration of the trio’s individual personalities and driving forces. Ben was the ex-professional who was used to being pushed to the limits day in and day out, cultivating an, ultimately career killing, need to be the best. An individual whose worth became so tied to his identity within the lycra on a saddle seat that he struggled to realise who he was outside of that. Vikki is in many ways highly similar, pushing herself to her limits to prove that she is not powerless, she is strong and she is determined. She, I believe has yet to come to terms with the unfortunate fact that somethings – even those affecting what she is closest to – are out of her control. Polly, she fights every day. She rebels against and resists stereotypes, exhaustion, and unfair systems. Sometimes it overwhelms her, sometimes it gets to be too much, sometimes she needs someone to lean on, but she never loses herself, her voice or her passions. Polly was a well-rounded character, disabled by her chronic-illness, who very much lived in the real and relatable world. Through these three characters, Kathleen illustrated the everyday lives of real people. From the punishing work schedule to 52-page benefit forms, she highlights British attitudes – positive and negative – to homosexuality, disability, benefits, work, bills, cheating, friendships, relationships and far more.
It is hard to comment on the other parallels that are executed so well throughout this novel without issuing spoilers. They provide platforms on which the reader can rest and reflect on the progression of the characters. They are check-ins, progress markers. Some are more powerful than others. Most are there for the reader’s reflection, others force both the reader and character alike to think of the ‘what if?’ and appreciate their position; they are, like most of this book, another tool in the development arc which carries you along.
This could have been a heavy read but it wasn’t. Instead, Ben’s first-person narrative was warm. It enabled you to care for the characters, to root for them when they down and admonish them when they made silly decisions. Relatable and honest with great representation of chronic-illness and bisexuality, this was a book that, upon finishing, I wondered why I had been so critical in the beginning.
A spoke in the wheel is Kathleen Jowitt’s second novel, her first being Speak its name, the first self-published book to win the Betty Trask Award.
You can find out more on her Website – https://kathleenjowitt.com/ – where she also blogs.
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