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“Every passionate reader lives for that first page of a book that alerts her, straightaway, she’ll be sorry when the book ends. So it is with Michelle Latiolais’ astonishing, sparklingly intelligent new novel…. The work strives, with bold zest, to arrive at the marrow of things…. Latiolais triumphs, folding the work’s clinical ruminations into the story’s delicious batter. Powerfully recommended.”
“In prose shimmering with intelligence and compassion, Michelle Latiolais dissects the essentials of everyday life to find the heartbeat within. [Her work] reveals an author with that rare eye which is at once both clinical and poetic.”
Alice Sebold, author of The Almost Moon and The Lovely Bones
“An elegant and engaging novel of beauty and pain, and how one will often reveal the other. Precise, insightful, lovely.”
Aimee Bender, author of Willful Creatures
“The novel courts—in elegant and sometimes elegiac prose—the shadowy and elusive opportunities for redemption.”
Ron Carlson, author of Five Skies
“Autism and grief acquire powerful and enigmatic reality as the reader turns the pages of A Proper Knowledge. To invoke one of its own metaphors, this novel is a refuge, not because it elides trauma or sorrow, but because it confronts them with gallant and unswerving clarity. A thousand things are noticed in this novel that you won’t have seen in fiction before. Don’t be fooled: for all the delicacy of its language this is a work of burning ferocity.”
Elizabeth Tallent, author of Honey
Luke is a gifted psychiatrist who has built his reputation on innovative treatment of autistic children. Ever devoted to his patients, he follows their deeply encoded cues along the most obscure passages of the human psyche in search of a way to break through their intractable isolation. Yet even as glimmers of hope appear for certain of the children in his care, he remains trapped in the maze of his own obsessive grief over the death, many years before, of his adolescent sister Sadie.
A Proper Knowledge is a beautifully crafted, penetrating investigation into the misunderstood pathways of both the brain and the heart. It is about how death can bind a family together even as it tears its individual members apart; how guilt can lead to creative—or destructive—acts, and how the search for love carries with it the potential for a cure.
Excerpt from A Proper Knowledge
Stan engines into Luke’s office, his legs pistoning, fanatical, fueled by something seemingly unstoppable and mechanical, and so frightening—and frightening anew each time, Luke must admit—because each time Luke is alarmed and he knows it registers in his eyes and body until the physician arrives on board and he remembers who he is in this equation called doctor and patient.
“Stan, hey, how’re you, guy?” but Luke doesn’t wait for an answer, doesn’t not wait, either, but, rather understands the continuum within which at any point in time an exchange with Stan is registering and being responded to, language and time not so much in constant shuffle as in constant deliberate reconfigurative negotiation.
“You feel the earthquake yesterday, buddy?” Luke asks, get- ting up from his chair and coming around his desk. He hunkers down near Stan to see if he won’t make eye contact. Luke is six four, and even halved he is still taller than most of his charges.
Stan pulls the juice tin of colored pencils down one side of the low child’s table, then across its lower ledge, then pushes the tin up to the top left-hand corner. He selects a pencil from the forty-five that are there, the same green pencil—vert vif—every session, then moves the tin counterclockwise back to its original position.
“In the morning, yesterday, the earth moved, jolted. You draw that for me, Stan? You give me a sense of what that felt like for you?” Luke pauses. He looks at Stan’s thin, finely boned face, the huge eyes full of intelligence, perception, ferocity. Luke likes Stan’s stylish eyeglasses, wonders absently what they cost, the blue frames with the snazzy ultra-thin line of red running across the top. “But I’d rather you just talked to me, buddy,” he says, knowing the minute Stan does speak, Luke will have to work hard and fast at the sorting out, the putting together—is that a sentence from The Lion King or from The Manchurian Candidate? Luke stands up and shakes out his legs. His knees ache. He is better and better at racketball and this makes him unhappy, this being more skillful at something in the company of men alone—how regressive is that!—and the four tall, claustrophobic walls, his disorientation more and more often—Where is the door? How do I get out of here?—the balls strafing past his ears maniacally, so how he’s gotten better might be a mystery, but it isn’t. He’s madder, more aggressive; that pas- sage to “better,” he’d rather have no part of. He supposes there are women who play racketball, but his reach at six four is expansive and he’d be wary of clipping her with a racket. Anyway, that’s not exactly what he wants, a racketball partner.
He leans back against one of the chairs in front of his desk. He loves Stan’s straight blond hair, which is left to fall to his shoulders. He already looks like a graduate student, Luke thinks, but an ethereal one. Stan positions the pencil carefully in his fingers, pulling his own thumb farther down the pencil’s shaft. He then smoothes the air above the paper for several seconds with the backs of his hands. He steps away, steps forward, and begins. He draws swiftly, adroitly, his hand flying two inches above the page; he pulls a line down left, then extends it farther, tweaks a detail in the upper right corner, worries something dead center, eddying the pencil around and around—it might be a Giacometti face—but there is absolutely no mark on the paper anywhere.
Something occurs to Luke that has not before: Stan is tall for seven, beautifully proportioned, as elegant as a giraffe, but he will only lean over so far. The child’s table is low for him, and Luke has never seen Stan of his own accord, or willingly, take to a chair.
“Hey, buddy, let’s set you up here.” Luke drags a chair away from the front of his desk and clears away the picture of Sadie, the smaller picture of Man and his man, a rock formation off the coast of Cornwall, England, and a silver letter opener which should not have been out during a session anyway. He leans across his desk and slides them into a drawer. He pushes his blotter aside and then pulls from the child’s table the pad Stan has been gesturing over. Luke positions it carefully on the desk. “Bring your pencil, guy. Draw here, okay? The desk will be a better height for you to work on.”
Stan doesn’t turn around to face Luke or to acknowledge what Luke has suggested and now arranged for him. “You know you don’t have to sit in a chair,” Luke urges. Stan stands very still, a small, narrow statue; there is a tremendous, calamitously still anger rigidifying his body, and then the anger is kinetic and he begins to turn, his arms held close to his body, turning, turning, dervishing, his arms opening to maintain his balance, and Luke knows he must wait, maybe five, maybe ten, maybe fifteen minutes before Stan stops, and that, in fact, it is therapeutic for Stan to twirl, that he’ll be calmer afterward, his coordination better.