Friday, 18 September 2015

Review | Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes by Emily Urquhart

by Emily Urquhart

My Rating: 

Like any new mother, Emily is thrilled when her first child, a daughter, is born. The baby, Sadie, is healthy and stunningly beautiful, with snow white hair and fair skin. Even the doctors and nurses can’t help a second look at this magical child. But soon a darker current begins to emerge—something is amiss. After three months of testing, Sadie is diagnosed with albinism, a rare genetic condition.
Emily, a folklore scholar and an award-winning journalist, is accustomed to understanding and processing the world through stories. With Sadie at her side, Emily researches the cultural beliefs surrounding albinism and finds a curious history of outlandish tales of magic, and of good and evil reaching back through time, along with present-day atrocities. In some parts of the world, people with albinism are stalked; their condition is seen to bring luck and health as well as danger and death. Investigating the different reactions, in different cultures, to those with albinism, Emily begins to see her child as a connection between worlds.
Part memoir, part cultural critique, and part genetic travelogue, Beyond the Pale is a brave, intimate investigation into the secret histories that each of us carries in our genes and an inspiring and beautiful memoir about parenting a child with a disability—and building a better future for that child.
I feel like this year is the happiest I've felt with my reading habits for the longest time. When you step into book blogging it feels as though you must read what everyone else is reading, not because anyone else tells you that but because, naturally, you want to join in when other bloggers are really excited about a book they've been reading. I really tried, but I don't read primarily YA so a lot of the books that are very popular in the book blogging community tend to pass me by. For a while that bugged me, and now it doesn't because all that matters is that I enjoy blogging and I enjoy reading.

This year I've really gotten into non-fiction. For a while I was convinced non-fiction just wasn't my thing. When I was younger I was interested in stories, in fiction, I wasn't interested in reading a memoir. As I got older most of the non-fiction I read I encountered at university, and when you associate non-fiction with essay writing it can be hard to seek out non-fiction purely for enjoyment's sake. Over the past year or so, however, I've really begun to enjoy non-fiction. I love non-fiction centred around history and historical figures - I'm a huge history nerd - but I've also enjoyed reading some literary criticism and memoirs, and recently I read and enjoyed Beyond the Pale.

I had no idea whatsoever that this book existed until I saw Jen Campbell mention it on her YouTube channel and it sounded fascinating. I knew very little about albinism, but I had encountered it a little during my MA while I was researching witchcraft, and the idea of a folklorist exploring the beliefs surrounding albinism and looking into her own family history sounded right up my street.

Emily Urquhart's writing style is very readable. When she's discussing the early stages of her daughter's diagnosis and the different types of albinism there are it could have been easy for me to get lost - I'm not scientifically minded at all - but I was never confused, nor should I have been. This book isn't a science book, it's a memoir and a travel book and criticism all rolled into one, and while albinism is the focus Emily pays so much more attention to the people with albinism than the condition itself. Everyone she meets is treated with such respect and her daughter, Sadie, is just adorable.

There's a real spectrum of beliefs in this book, from the biblical suggestion that Noah had albinism and therefore the condition is associated with being the child of an angel in Christian theology, to the more heartbreaking realities in Tanzania in which people with albinism literally live in fear of their lives. Some of the stories may be a little hard to read but they're worth reading: it's incredibly important that we don't remain ignorant to some of the atrocities that people with albinism are forced to face on a daily basis.

I really enjoyed this book. It satisfied the craving I've had for non-fiction all year, and once again reminded me to continue to broaden my reading habits. The only reason I gave it four stars rather than five was because I was hoping for a little more along the lines of folklore; after a while it seemed to disappear from the narrative completely other than the times in which Emily reminded us she's a folklorist, but I still really enjoyed reading about her trip to Tanzania and her research into her family history.

Super interesting read, I highly recommend it!

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