Colour-coded mind

Lead Review

Colour-coded mind

Jodi Picoult has been here before, in the territory where fiction intersects with health care. In her book My Sister’s Keeper, she went into the mind of a child conceived for the purpose of ensuring a steady supply of bone marrow for her sister.

That book falls somewhere between literature and just a yarn, being a story told for the purpose of focusing attention on a particular topical issue.

In House Rules, a young boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum, is suspected of having killed his tutor. Jacob has nervous tics, refuses to meet a person’s eye, and is obsessed with crime scenes. He expresses no emotion.

All of  that would make him a suspect for those who are fearful of people with disabilities and ignorant of the symptoms of autism. But in this case there is much more against the boy, and even his mother, Emma, cannot swear he hasn’t committed a violent crime.

Jacob tells the literal truth because his condition makes him incapable of creating a fiction or even a metaphor. Emma doesn’t have the courage to listen to Jacob’s entire story, and the investigating detective is connecting two dots that have nothing to do with each other, so the boy is subjected to a criminal trial.

The death of the young tutor, Jess, the way in which her body was moved and posed, the investigation and the trial, all make up the lesser part of the novel. True, the overlapping accounts of Jacob, his brother Theo, Emma, the detective and the lawyer allow for some cliffhanging, but before the novel is half over it is clear to any alert reader what has happened.

The novel is primarily about the ties between the two boys and their mother, and even the father who walked out on them years ago because he found it too difficult to live with an autistic child.

Along the way, as we are meant to, we learn all about Asperger’s Syndrome. Emma’s entire life is centred on her elder son and his needs. She works from home so that she can be there at the right times every day.

She cooks gluten-free, casein-free meals because those ingredients may make him more susceptible to a meltdown. She colour-codes the food each day of the week because that is what he wants. She arranges his clothes in the exact sequence of the rainbow spectrum and separates them because he can’t have his blue T-shirts touch his indigo ones. She makes sure not to park near an orange car because Jacob can’t stand that colour.

She fights regularly for special accommodations at his school so that he can complete his education. She explores every study, treatment and vitamin that might give her son the life other teenagers live.

A noise or a change in plans can cause a meltdown, that is, a force ten tantrum on the part of a boy who is now six feet tall and weighs 180 pounds, and who in his thrashing may quite possibly hurt someone. It is because so much of their lives is susceptible to chaos that Emma runs her family according to five non-negotiable house rules.  

For all his adherence to routine, Jacob’s life is ultimately about unpredictability. There are plenty of ifs, ands and buts to the certainties he craves. He drinks Coke on a white-food day. He can’t bear the sound of tearing paper, but in the very first scene he rips a paper towel off the roll in the kitchen.

He arranges a careful crime scene after Jess  dies, cleaning up blood, wiping off fingerprints, planting another man’s boot print as evidence, and moving the body, and after all that he wraps the dead girl in his own quilt, handmade by his grandmother and therefore unique, and incriminating. Unpredictably, Jacob does play with words and unleash the occasional sarcasm. Unpredictably, his estranged father comes home for the trial. Unpredictably, Jacob stands up for his little brother.

House Rules is a feel-good tale for the most part, but what it says about human nature and socialisation goes well beyond children with Asperger’s. Some of the most interesting chapters are those written in Jacob’s own voice.

He talks of the difficulties of reading the half-smile, half-smirk that shows a teacher is annoyed, not appreciative. He points out the variations of meaning in common English words that would cause an American to be baffled in London. 

Much of what Jacob studies under his mother’s direction—facial expressions, idiom, norms of politeness—is not limited to his own situation but applies to every stranger negotiating a new country. Even his mother has cross-cultural struggles. When working on her agony aunt column, she wonders what a young girl means by “friends with benefits”.

She asks her blushing younger son to explain and is then appalled at what passes for friendship among teens. We’ve all been there. It is our struggle to understand that helps us recognise how Jacob learns. That is what puts us in his shoes.

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