Jane Corry on the friendship that changed her view of disability

Jane Corry shares the story of Alice, the friend who inspired her to write about a young woman whose life is changed by a brain injury in her latest book, Blood Sisters

I’m thrilled to see that early reviewers of Blood Sisters ‘love’ Kitty as much as I do. So where did she come from?

Until I married my second husband eight years ago, I had no idea that a young woman with ‘special needs’ could have her own character just like anyone else. I’m ashamed to say that, like many people who haven’t encountered disability, I used to make all kinds of generalisations. But then, through my new husband, I met Alice (not her real name).

Alice is the daughter of very close friends of my husband. Despite being born with severe health issues, she has lived at home all her life with her parents and sister, who have loved and nurtured her. Nothing is too much trouble for them - never once have I heard them complain - and it’s heartwarming to see the obvious love on their faces as they feed, dress and play with her.

Yet Kitty and her sister - whom I can’t name as it would be a spoiler - have more problems than most.  Kitty has had an accident that means she can’t talk or walk. She is in a home for the mentally impaired. She understands everything people say (although most people don’t realize that), but her memory is patchy. She remembers some things from the past and then promptly forgets them. She can’t, for the life of her, recall how she came to be in this home in the first place. She also swears like a trooper, albeit only in her head. She’s promiscuous – or tries to be. And she falls head over heels in love. 

Alice is now 21. She is in a wheelchair and communicates through clapping, banging her hands and pointing to pictures. She makes a certain noise when she is happy – like the time we took her to the local donkey sanctuary. And she makes a different sound when she doesn’t want to do something, such as wearing a certain jumper. In fact, she can be very determined about what she does and doesn’t want to do; demonstrating her views with hand waving and head turning.

Alice likes her food. But she’ll signal when she’s had enough to eat, thank you very much. She can be noisy in restaurants, which sometimes makes other diners move away. This happened when our friends came down to stay with us recently and we all went to a pub for a meal. I felt mortified on their behalf when the table next to ours asked to be seated somewhere ‘quieter’ away from the noise which Alice was making. However our friends shrugged it off and pointed out that it wasn’t always easy for others to understand.

The Blood Sisters

I’m ashamed to say that, like many people who haven’t encountered disability, I used to make all kinds of generalisations. But then I met Alice

Every now and then, Alice will have a fit, and sometimes she has to go to hospital. This causes huge worry and anxiety. Yet each time, her parents put on a brave face and somehow get through it. They also find the time to help and encourage other families in similar situations.

But the most important thing about Alice is that, despite everything, she is very much her own woman.

My Kitty is not Alice, but the latter played an important role in helping me to draw the fuller picture. She taught me that those with special needs have the same emotions as anyone else. And she also showed me that you can have a brilliant sense of humour without actually speaking. In fact, our friends’ daughter often roars with laughter even though you might not understand what is so amusing. I wanted to share this. To write about an Alice so that as many people as possible could see the world through her eyes.

I felt even more strongly about this when I visited various brain injury units all over the country. There I met other Alices, as well as young men whose lives had been changed through accidents or illnesses. The never-ending, fathomless love and care shown by staff and relations moved me beyond words. ‘I never thought this would happen to us,’ one mother told me, ‘but when it did, we somehow found the strength to deal with it.’

Every person I met in these centres had a previous life before he or she went there. That’s why Kitty is two people in my novel:  the ‘before’ Kitty when she was a schoolgirl who could talk, run and apply mascara with more aplomb than her older sister. And the ‘after’ Kitty who found herself in a wheelchair, unable to talk. It’s one reason why I wanted to show that so-called ‘disabled’ people should not be defined by what they can and cannot do. Just as important, I tried to make the point that girls like Kitty and Alice are the same as all of us, with plenty of human faults as well as good points!

Take jealousy, that green-eyed snake. Before her accident, like many younger sisters, Kitty deeply envied her older sibling. She wanted to go to parties too. She wanted to wear cool clothes and high heels, and have her first boyfriend. But then, one summer day, her whole life changed. And so, too, did the lives of her sister and everyone else around them.

But what happens to Kitty and her sister? What did they fall out about? (If, indeed, they did?) Did their acrimony result in Kitty’s injuries? And do they make up in the end?

I’ll leave it up to you to find out…

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more