“Coincidences mean you’re on the right path.”
(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)
She Is Not Invisible is not at all what I was expecting.
“Laureth Peak’s father has taught her to look for recurring events, patterns, and numbers–a skill at which she’s remarkably talented. Her secret: She is blind. But when her father goes missing, Laureth and her 7-year-old brother Benjamin are thrust into a mystery that takes them to New York City where surviving will take all her skill at spotting the amazing, shocking, and sometimes dangerous connections in a world full of darkness. She Is Not Invisible is an intricate puzzle of a novel that sheds a light on the delicate ties that bind people to each other.”
Somehow from this blurb, I came away with the idea that She Is Not Invisible is set in Las Vegas. With supernatural/scifi elements, possibly involving a blind teenage protagonist endowed with special powers; cue images of Laureth cleaning up at the poker table while fleeing from the law/loan sharks/the mafia/some other Big Bad with her kidnapped younger brother in tow. Needless to say, this only resembles the actual plot in the slightest.
Along these lines, I feared that Sedgwick would engage in “magical” disabled person clichés (see, e.g., the Disability Superpower and Blind Seer tropes). Not only is this not the case, but Laureth actually pokes fun at these herself, as her younger brother Benjamin eagerly consumes an issue of Daredevil on the trans-Atlantic flight from the UK to NYC.
So. What is She Is Not Invisible really about, then? Sixteen-year-old Laureth’s father is missing. A writer, he had traveled to Sweden (Switzerland? Belgium? No one seems to know!) to research his next book. A book he’s been working on (some might say obsessing over) for the better part of a decade, much to his wife’s chagrin. While cleaning out his email, Laureth finds a mysterious and troubling message from someone claiming to have found his notebook – in New York City. Dad’s not answering his cell phone or responding to Laureth’s texts, and Mom seems wholly unconcerned; hostile, even, as Dad’s latest book has been a strain on the couple’s finances and marriage. So Laureth sets out to find him – but not alone.
Laureth is blind, and while she gets around quite well, she knows that she can’t navigate Heathrow Airport – let alone New York City – on her own. (There’s actually a rather interesting discussion of whether visually impaired minors are allowed to fly on their own; the issue isn’t specifically addressed on the airline’s website, and none of the US Customs agents seem to know. Hence Laureth’s decision to pass as sighted doesn’t seem so ill-advised after all.) So she enlists the help of her seven-year-old brother Benjamin, whom she “abducts” to NYC.
Their very first lead is Dad’s black notebook, which literally fell out of the sky and onto the head of one Mr. Michael Walker – who turns out to be a “posh” twelve-year-old boy with an almost comically old-fashioned way of speaking. From there, Laureth and Ben follow the clues contained within the notebook, hoping that it will lead them to their father. As news of their escapades breaks, they must also evade the police, as well as the criminals who are hot on their trail.
Sedgwick’s books well-known for their darkness; and while it certainly has its moments, She Is Not Invisible is not nearly as grim as I’d expected. Dad’s “state of mind” is a matter of much conjecture, and as they study his notebook for clues, Laureth starts to fear the worst: that her father had a psychotic break and hurt himself. After a series of strange coincidences, the idea of synchronicity begins to dominate his life, seemingly consuming him the way it did many others: Edgar Allen Poe. Carl Jung. Arthur Koester. Paul Kammerer. Wolfgang Pauli. Are these seemingly chance occurrences – all revolving around the number 354 – just incidental, or do they hint at some larger cosmic meaning? If laws govern the universe, then can coincidence even be said to exist at all? What does it all mean?
Ultimately, the solution to the puzzle is much more mundane than the individual pieces would have us believe. In this way, She Is Not Invisible reminds me of another missing persons mystery, Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone. I enjoyed them both immensely, though for different reasons.
She Is Not Invisible’s greatest strengths are its children: Laureth, Benjamin, and Mike. Through Laureth, we get a sense – admittedly, only a fleeting and hazy one – of what it must feel like to be sightless in a sighted world: dealing with indifferent and even hostile people, butting up against harmful stereotypes, navigating unfamiliar situations and unknown social expectations. Forever struggling to make yourself seen and heard when others would rather not acknowledge your existence. (Hence the title of the book.)
In addition to ableism, Sedgwick also addresses racism in the form of Mr. Walker, who is black. When accosted by a knife-wielding stranger, Mike is told to scram – “We don’t want your kind here.” – a statement which leaves Laureth puzzled. And Ben, who has an uncanny knack for frying electronics (“The Benjamin Effect”), feels painfully isolated from his peers; whereas most kids his age are busy shooting each other up in video games, Ben can usually be found with his nose stuck in a book – one of the few forms of entertainment that he can’t destroy.
Alienation and “othering” are key elements She Is Not Invisible; perhaps the characters who live within these pages will help foster empathy for the different, the marginalized, the dehumanized.
Although he ultimately dismisses the idea of coincidence, Sedgwick includes a fun and revelatory little puzzle in the Author’s Note. Trust, love, and faith: these are the heart of She Is Not Invisible.
So, no. She Is Not Invisible is not what I was expecting. It’s so much more.
Minor trigger warning for violence/threats of violence, including sexual harassment and allusions to sexual assault.