Méabh Collins’ debut novel tells the story of Freya, who, like many girls her age, is navigating life at secondary school, looking for a way to fit in and be accepted as old friendship groups rearrange themselves around her. For Freya though, the experience of high school has particular challenges. Freya is autistic, recently diagnosed, and desperate to keep that information to the smallest group possible – her sympathetic Vice Principal, but not other teachers and certainly not her classmates. It is a daily struggle and things come to a head on a field trip to Irish college. Taken away from the safety of home and familiarity of school, it becomes impossible for Freya to cope. Already in the grip of an eating disorder, things look bad for her, but with the support of her family, new friends at school, an online community of other autistic young people, and even the quiet space provided by the school library, she’s able to find a way to be herself. Books for Keeps interviewed Méabh Collins about her book.
Méabh Collins always knew she wanted to be a writer, writing stories from an early age and ‘publishing’ them on folded squares of paper, complete with publisher logo and price. She’s a teacher now but it was a spell interning at Penguin Random House, in the children’s division, that made her realise she could properly put pen to paper and gave her the courage to admit that she wanted to do it. At first she tried writing fantasy adventures, responding to what was popular in the market, but her heart wasn’t in it. Freya Harte’s story was different however, ‘I felt actually I have a lot to say here and I want to say it as well as I can. My heart and my soul were in this book in a way it hadn’t been before.’
Méabh draws on her own memories in the novel and her own experience of being a young autistic person. Now in her early thirties, she was diagnosed with autism at 24. ‘I’ve had a quarter of a lifetime with this knowledge,’ she says, ‘but it’s taken until now to determine what that means for me and how I navigate the world with this information.’ She describes the experience of writing the book as cathartic but very much intended it to be a help for young people too.
‘It took time for me to make sense of being autistic and the things I was grateful for along the way were the stories of other autistic people. So Freya Harte is not a Puzzle is a contribution of sorts to the younger autistic generation. I hope that it gives them language to put to their experience if that’s something they’re struggling with.’
Awareness of autism is much higher than it has been, and there have been notable recent books featuring autistic young people, yet there’s still lack of understanding. Not all of Freya’s teachers are supportive, one comments within Freya’s hearing, ‘Sure, half of them are diagnosed with something these days.’ Her former-friend’s mother is well-meaning, but expresses surprise at Freya’s diagnosis, ‘I would have thought you were, well, normal. A bit quiet maybe, but definitely normal.’ Freya is frustrated by their misconceptions and hates their assumptions that they understand her. ‘More people are discussing autism in a very progressive way,’ says Méabh, ‘and you can see the celebration of neurodiversity and the increase in autistic voices speaking of their own experience and reclaiming that narrative. But equally you have people saying “Oh here we go again, aren’t we all like this? Why are you special?” I am trying to write with an awareness that that might be how people react, but also trying to challenge it. What Freya experiences is not anything a non-autistic person couldn’t relate to, but it’s the extent to which she feels it, how deeply it affects her and how it debilitates her that is different.’
Méabh has taken care with other aspects of the storyline too, bearing in mind that her readership will be teenagers and young adults. ‘I was particularly mindful with the eating disorder storyline. If it’s a book that autistic people, girls in particular, are going to be reading there’s a higher chance that they have may be in the throes of an eating disorder, or are susceptible or vulnerable. I wrote the first draft in the way that I needed to initially, to get it all out, and then thought about reigning it in, so Freya’s eating disorder is addressed but not with more detail than it needed.’ She was also careful not to wrap things up too cleanly at the end either, ‘Her eating disorder is something that Freya is working through. She’s recovering from it, but still needs support with it.’
In addition to Freya’s voice in the novel, there are also first-person blogs from a boy called Rossa who writes about his own autism (these felt so real I was compelled to Google him). Rossa’s descriptions of his own experiences help Freya, but he talks about his little sister Emma too, also autistic. Predominantly non-speaking, Emma is sometimes described as ‘low-functioning.’ This allows Rossa to talk about how reductive labels such as ‘high’ or ‘low-functioning’ are for autistic people, and how they can created a harmful divide. That storyline enabled Méabh to shine a light on other autistic experiences, something she follows up with suggestions of further reading at the end of the book and a list of recommended documentaries that feature non-speaking autistic people.
Awareness and understanding are at the heart of her book and Méabh’s respect for her readers comes over throughout too in a story which is thoughtful and sensitive from beginning to end. When I ask Méabh what she’d like readers to take from it, she is clear: ‘I hope that they see it as full representation of an autistic person, that’s nuanced and respectful. I hope that they see it as something that is fair and balanced and compassionate and kind. I’d love if they find more in it; that Freya is someone they can relate to and I hope that for families or teachers of autistic people that it could be a kind of bridge – a book that gives language but also illustrates the inner world of the autistic mind and illuminates it.’ Freya Harte is not a Puzzle does all that and more, presenting readers with a real character they will like as well as understand, in a book full of drama, development and the kind of laughter that teenage girls specialise in. Everyone should read it.
Freya Harte is not a Puzzle is published by O’Brien Press, 978-1788493451, £8.99 pbk