‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes

I’ve read ‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes, and seen the film, several times now. Indeed, I bought the DVD last week and have been watching it. And I’m puzzled I haven’t reviewed the book or the film yet, given that the story very obviously features a disabled main character. So, despite the controversy – or perhaps because of it – here goes.

I wasn’t even aware that there was any controversy around the book and film. The portrayal of a disabled character by an able-bodied actor raises a few hackles, as, does the – apparently – underlying assumption that ‘living with a disability is such agony, it’d be better not to…’ I’ve heard these arguments before, and listened to them; and at different stages in my life, they have hit home very hard.

The story concerns a formerly able-bodied, now wheelchair-bound man, Will, who was injured in a collision with a motorbike and is now paralysed from the neck down. Louisa is employed by Will’s mother to provide some hope of hope for her son. Despite their subsequent obvious love for each other, Lou does not change Will’s mind that he wishes to die. And so, Will goes to Switzerland and ends his life, as he planned to do before Louisa ever came on the scene.

I know that many disabilities, cerebral palsy included, often shorten an ordinary life-span. I also know that being disabled, one has to live with and through lots of painful assumptions, such as – and I’ve debunked a few of these in my time – ‘I thought all people with CP were, you know, mentally retarded’, ‘It’s easier for you because you were born disabled’, ‘She’ll not amount to much’ and, ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t want to live’… which are a painful mix of tosh and ignorance.

When it comes to fictional portrayals, I don’t think there is any need for hostility around either the book or the film. Certainly, the author makes assumptions about disability, but so do many of us, whether able-bodied or disabled. If Moyes’ novel is to be (a) shorter than ‘War and Peace’ and (b) entertaining and enlightening in equal measure, she has to cut a path through the complex maze that is reality and realism, and leaven it with fictional lightness that will make her book good reading. And I think she manages the tricky balance well enough not to be accused of insensitivity. Humans being complex and varied creatures, there is nothing unfeasible, unrealistic, patronising or unattractive in an – admittedly young – character deciding to end his own life because he was formerly very independent, active and sporty and because he finds the prospect of now living with unremitting pain hard to bear.

(To be continued)

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