YA: I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson

Review published on June 1, 2017.

Penny Joelson’s debut YA novel, I Have No Secrets, is an absolute joy of a novel in so many ways and one that I’m sure will be much talked about for a long time.

First and foremost, Joelson hits on a brilliant premise for a YA thriller, as the murder of a young man and the disappearance of a young woman remain a mystery to everyone but the central character Jemma, who is unable to communicate. She holds the key to solving both crimes, but suffers from severe cerebral palsy, which means not only that she is unable to speak but also unable to control her muscles in any way that would allow her to communicate physically. One of the most intriguing aspects of the novel was how the author would work through this challenge to reach the novel’s resolution, especially without turning to the realms of fantasy or a Hollywood-style miracle recovery. But it is testament to Joelson, who has worked with children with disabilities, that she turns to real-life science rather than any whimsy to offer an ending which is both optimistic and progressive but also plausible and credible, and in a note following the story she explains that whilst the technology described in the story is out there – and relatively inexpensive – unfortunately its production and availability haven’t been pursued. Her hope is that the novel ‘will persuade a company to take this up and make it commercially available’ so that ‘everyone who has the potential to communicate will have access to the equipment they need.’

It’s a case that brooks no argument and anyone who reads Joelson’s portrayal of Jemma will recognise that all the more. For Joelson delivers a stunning characterisation of a sensitive, intelligent, perceptive and above all very ordinary young woman, with feelings, emotions and fears just like everyone else, but who is burdened by the inability to communicate. It’s a truly thought-provoking portrait, not least as Joelson shows how people behave and act around Jemma – ignoring her or talking down to her – as they fail to look beyond her disabilities and recognise her abilities. As we see how Jemma feels about being misunderstood, it is impossible for the book not to breed greater understanding and compassion. But it is not only Jemma who wins hearts in this novel, but younger foster sibling Finn, who has his own struggles with autism, and even wilful Olivia. Indeed, the whole family dynamic of the novel is wonderful. To some extent the mystery element of the novel and the seemingly ‘main’ plot surrounding the murder comes somewhat secondary to Jemma and her family’s story, but there is no way anyone could hold this against the book. Indeed, the brilliant exploration of Jemma’s quest to be able to communicate leads to some of the most beautiful and moving scenes I’ve ever read.

To my mind, everyone should absolutely read this novel, not only to be privy to a completely different perspective and to try and understand more what it means not to be able to communicate, but crucially to encourage greater empathy outside of the novel too. And who knows, maybe the right person or people may just read Joelson’s story and the prospect of communication for those unable to communicate could turn from fiction into fact.

Jade Craddock 5/5

I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson
Electric Monkey 9781405286152 pbk May 2017

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