Clare Barker and Stuart Murray (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability

Clare Barker and Stuart Murray (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) 280 pp. £67.99 Hb. £22.99 Pb. ISBN: 9781107087828 

Comprised of a selection of essays arranged to showcase the chronology and evolution of disability representation throughout literature, Barker and Murray’s edited collection provides a selection of some of the world’s leading authorities on disability portrayals and their impact on the literary landscape. Separated into two parts, 'Across Literatures' and 'Across Critical Methods', the essays are complementary yet work well as stand-alone pieces to provide invaluable insight to the reader. As disability studies begins to gain momentum in literary studies and societal contexts generally, this collection has been published at a time of great significance and necessity.

Beginning with Barker’s own essay ‘Introduction: On Reading Disability in Literature’, the reader is reminded that, although a genre rarely explored widely on undergraduate programs, ‘Disability is everywhere in literature’ (1). Its appearance in narratives crosses ’all time periods’ (1) and spans cultures, seen in the ‘earliest expressions of European poetry to the contemporary global novel’ (1). Indeed, one can trace disability in parts of the Poetic Edda, where the author insists that ‘the lame can ride horses, the handless drive herds’ (1). Contrary to the often-seen literary trope of ‘disability as (personal) tragedy’, where death can be viewed a preferable fate to a life with disability, the Edda’s author acknowledges that those with impairments can – and presumably do – live fulfilling lives, and that ultimately, ‘no one has use for a corpse’ (1).

Barker continues by commenting that, as it pervades and spans across all periods, disability is ultimately something to be read and commented on, and that a physically different body is written fundamentally to mean something and to bring an element of ‘what it means to be “human”’ (2) to a narrative. This exploration of human experience spans centuries, and – as shown throughout each chapter – this ‘meaning’ evolves, and at points, indicates very different realities for those living with impairment and disability in the centuries corresponding to the literatures explored. It is Davis and Garland-Thomson who explored and analysed the concept of ‘normal’ - ‘normalcy and normate’, respectively - where ‘normal was the central mode from which it [disability] deviated’ (3). This ‘normalcy’, then, becomes the pivotal issue in which the ‘problem of the disabled person’ (3) is created. As we will encounter throughout the book, this concept is interwoven throughout each of the chapters and thus pervades and transcends historical periods.

Focused on medieval literature, Wheatley’s essay explores the monsters, saints and sinners frequently seen in literatures of the Middle Ages. It is important to note that ‘the term “disability” itself did not exist in English’ (17) at this time, but that monsters, saints and sinners - characters that deviate from ‘the norm’ as explored by Davis and Garland-Thomson - came to represent these physical differences. It is safe to assume that throughout this period disability and impairments were fairly widespread, owing to the paucity of medical advancements at the time. Although we can assume a high prevalence of disability during the period, which in itself is ‘unremarkable’ (17), literary disability representation (of human characters, at least) was something of a rarity. When this did occur, however, ‘hideousness … fit many representations of disability in literature’ (21). When characters were disabled or corporeally different, they tended to be figured as either monsters, saints or sinners, where bodily difference automatically entitled characters to either assuming sub or – in the case of saints – “super”-human personae.  This has of course pervaded societal consciousness, wherein disability is still, on occasion, viewed in similar terms, as in the Channel 4 Paralympics campaign coverage “Meet the Superhumans” (2012).

Although there are legacies of medieval literature and medieval mindsets that can still permeate contemporary mindsets, Murray acknowledges the ‘greater understanding’ (90) of the disability community and the issues disabled individuals face. He does, however, acknowledge the role of disability contexts, wherein following World War II, society became more increasingly aware of disability and the disabled body. This awareness, then, brought with it ‘ambiguities in inclusion’ (93) and - owing to the complexities of societal context with regard to disability narratives - 'many writers found it impossible to assume a sense of progress' (93).

Kafer and Kim, in their essay 'Disability and the Edges of Intersectionality', acknowledge the need for 'disability studies-inflected intersectionality [that] recognises disability as an essential component of intersectional work' (123). As a relatively new and dynamic area of scholarship, Kim and Kafer state that by adding the study of disability to intersectional work, ‘we will eventually name all of the categories of oppression and fully map their operations' (136). This sentiment is acknowledged, too, by McRuer and Schalk, whose essays help to encapsulate present-day research and study into disability narratives. It is Couser, however, who really identifies an ongoing reality for many disabled people, where 'given the devaluing of disability by the general population (and, to a troubling degree, by medical professionals) ... there is a pressing need today for disability life writing to function as ... testimony affirming the value of living with disability' (210). And, perhaps rather pertinently, Couser brings his essay to a close by claiming that 'Today, as never before, disability writes' (210).

The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability is an essential resource for scholars, academics and those with personal interest in the depiction and portrayal of disability narratives both historical and contemporary. Containing sixteen essays which focus of a variety of narratives and contexts within the discipline, the book provides an invaluable grounding and foundation for further research and highlights key areas of focus. Although at times inaccessible to the everyday reader, there is enough variety for one to select their areas of focus, further confirming that the companion is a must for those who wish to understand the complexities and richness of a dynamic and significant field.

Heather Lacey, Independent Scholar