Patience, Toby Litt, Galley Beggar Press, 2019, pp.260, £15.00 (paperback)
In every first-person narrative readers are ultimately trapped in the mind of the protagonist, doomed only to know what they know. In Patience, author Toby Litt takes this concept further by sharing the story of Elliott, who is himself trapped in his mind, as his disability inhibits most of his physical movement and verbal expression, leaving him with only the tiniest means of communication. Yet, as readers, we have exclusive insight into Elliott’s world, and discover a wonderful story of childhood friendship.
Housed in an orphanage managed by Catholic nuns in the year 1979, Elliott lives a limited existence. In his wheelchair confinement, he passes every day either staring at a white wall or out of the window – the latter a privilege only given by the nuns if they believe he is well behaved. Elliott’s physical constraints make Litt’s stream of consciousness narrative, with its limited use of punctuation, a powerful form. Thought is Elliott’s only outlet, and we experience his story directly, from inside his head.
Elliott is a delightful narrator. While his experience of the world may appear limited, his shrewd and sometimes cynical analysis of the other characters creates a vivid picture of life on the second floor of the home. Litt has created a highly astute and observant individual, whose attention to those around him is astonishingly perceptive. For instance, he is able to distinguish the emotional state of the forever weeping Lise by the colour of her knees.
In Elliott’s recreation of the characterised voices of those he interacts with, Litt has taken full advantage of the stream of consciousness format, making what risked being a slow narrative continually engaging. His presentation of the nuns is particularly entertaining, breaking them down into different smells, behaviours and motivations, with a sense of understanding and wit. For you may “charm Sister Cécile and you may trick Sister Muriel and you may appeal to Sister Mary Margaret’s sense of pity and you may defy Sister Eliza but if there is something Sister Britta wants you to do you will end up doing it”. This is a novel with a unique sense of character, aided by allegorical use of metaphors and imagery throughout which add a truly personal charm.
Isolated as he is from the world, the novel explores how Elliott absorbs his surrounding environment to entertain himself. He has deep sensory engagement with sound, particularly music, and eagerly digests hymns sung in chapel, the Beatles’ songs he hears on cassettes, and the snippets of classical music from the radio. With his well-tuned ear, Elliott creates music in the world around him – shaping ambient noise into song, re-shaping his life in harmony with the sensation of music in mind – to represent emotions through certain motifs or styles.
Music is also integral to the developing friendship between Elliott and the blind and mute Jim, a friendship which lies at the centre of the novel. Litt creates a touching story in the gradual development of the pair’s bond in spite of their physical restrictions, with the two forming their own unique language humming songs to each other. When they reach the word in the lyric that they wish to communicate they stop humming (two notes of ‘Happy Birthday’ signals to the other that they are happy, for example). In this way, the pair are able to create “a whole new world of words” between them.
Themes of childish adventure and friendship are appropriately balanced with an awareness of Elliott’s daily suffering. Elliott’s pained attitude towards himself is emotional to read, touching on feelings of self-rejection and the fear of being a burden to others. The lack of affection that Elliott receives means that even the tiniest kindnesses are eternally precious to him. His perspective towards his parents who abandoned him is particularly heart-breaking. They communicate with him exclusively through greetings cards at Christmas and on his birthday, which, as their only sign of attention, hold such significance that Elliott uses them to mark the passage of years in his mind, underpinning his whole concept of time.
While Elliott’s desperate desire for his parents’ love is at points tragic, he is also critic and observer of the situation these children are in. One particularly haunting image is that of the lift doors closing on parents as they leave their children behind. In this moment, weeping and abandoned sons and daughters become orphans within the time it takes for the doors to shut.
Trapped as we are in Elliott’s head, we learn how he uses his intellect and deep sensory engagement to bond with the surrounding world despite his physical disability. In Patience, Toby Litt has shaped a powerful narrative tempered by moments of hope, sadness and joy, guided by a sparky, engaging narrator. This novel offers the wonderful opportunity to share in Elliott’s successes and struggles, but more poignantly his feelings, most of all his resounding optimism in all he experiences.
Words by Katrina Bennett.
To pre-order Patience by Toby Litt, visit Galley Beggar Press.
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