"Helen Keller has long been a towering figure in the pantheon of world heroines. Yet [...] Rosie Sultan’s debut novel imagines a part of Keller’s life she rarely spoke of or wrote about: the man she once loved. When Helen is in her thirties and Annie Sullivan is diagnosed with tuberculosis, a young man steps in as a private secretary. Peter Fagan opens a new world to Helen, and their sensual interactions—signing and lip-reading with hands and fingers—quickly set in motion a liberating, passionate, and clandestine affair. It’s not long before Helen’s secret is discovered and met with stern disapproval from her family and Annie. As pressure mounts, the lovers plot to elope, and Helen is caught between the expectations of the people who love her and her most intimate desires."
It is easy to see what inspires generations of people about Helen Keller: the stoicism, grace, modesty and talent that pervades her writing would be nothing short of remarkable even in someone 'ordinary', let alone in someone living with Keller's disabilities today - and even more so given the limitations in treating someone who was blind and deaf during Keller's lifetime. But naturally this places expectations on someone to say that they are coping well, and so to seize upon a time in Keller's life where she more ostensibly did not cope well is arguably a bold move. But this is what Sultan does in her first novel, Helen Keller In Love, by investigating a passionate love affair that took place between Keller and her private secretary which sadly did not come to the fruition that he allegedly promised her.
The two aspects of this work - history and fiction - are equally intriguing. Historically, Helen Keller In Love is clearly the result of hours and months (if not years) of diligent research by the author. With documentary evidence that this affair occurred, it brings new focus and perspective to Helen Keller's life. For a woman who was at pains to emphasise just how normal her life was, we are suddenly given part of her life which was not 'normal', and brings us to wonder whether it ever could have been. In addition, by highlighting this element of Keller's life, Sultan makes us reconsider the importance of other peripheral figures in history; the chances are that some of them had more impact than we may have previously realised.
The fictional factor is just as crucial, however. Even though there is some documentary evidence of the affair between Keller and Fagan, the author is honest in her endnotes about the fact that some other key documents have since been lost or destroyed. As with all historical writing, this has a significant effect on the end product - and in terms of historical fiction, it affects the degree to which the author is able and willing to put their own stamp on the basic storyline. Sultan's storytelling is believeable, intense and moving, allowing us to feel Helen's joy, pain and frustration across the story's entire trajectory. This also raises many interesting questions for the reader and makes them wonder how Fagan's side of the story would read.
Nevertheless, the result is an unputdownable debut which establishes Rosie Sultan as a blazing new figure on the historical fiction scene (which I'm sure the good people at Viking, who sent me this complimentary copy, will be glad to hear). This romantic yet serious novel, which is indulgent in some places yet minimalist in others, is suitable for any woman who has ever been in love (or lust) - it probably won't appeal much to men due to its highly romantic nature, but that shouldn't inhibit sales too much. Out this week, it comes highly recommended with the approach of summer.