Review: I Have No Secrets – Penny Joelson

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Jemma knows more than anyone realises in this YA crime thriller, but because there hasn’t been equipment found yet to support her communication, all that knowledge stays with her. When she learns information about a murder that has taken place, it becomes vital that she finds a way to tell people that information.

This book follows Jemma, a teenager with Cerebral Palsy who, at the beginning of the book, does not have a means of communicating what she knows with everyone else. She can intermittently move her eyes and vocalise a little with purpose, though those around her often cannot interprete what she is trying to get across. This has meant that her family and professionals who work with her have not yet found a means of communication that meets her need. The reader follows the thoughts that Jemma can’t yet express about the world; thoughts which are often at odds with what is going on around her and with what other people assume she wants and needs.

Early on in the book, Jemma learns a vital piece of information that could solve the murder of a local man, information that becomes all the more vital to share when someone close to her goes missing and Jemma is certain that the same person is to blame. In amongst this she has to deal with learning that she has a sister who wants to meet her, think about her future after school and the events inside her own home with two foster siblings – an autistic brother who bonds with Jemma in their own way and a sister who has been removed from multiple foster homes before coming to live with them.

The main antagonist of the piece and the mistreatment of Jemma by him is reminiscent of many of the news stories out at the moment about mistreatment of disabled people in residential homes or supported living. There’s also a scene later on in the book, with another character, that drives home how easily situations can arise where people can be left completely vulnerable. Given the atrocities that have come out in the news with events such as those at Mendip House, the cruelty put into words by one of the characters in this book doesn’t seem that far-fetched. Though that is also a horrid comment on the actions of some within our society.

Obviously, I don’t know how accurate the portrayal of Cerebral Palsy is as I don’t have personal experience. As far as I can tell – and happy to be corrected – the author, Penny Joelson, does not have any lived experience of Cerebral Palsy, rather her experience is primarily through work.  So the best I can say on the topic of representation is that nothing immediately stands out to me as being poorly done – when other characters make offensive comments or behave poorly towards Jemma, there are Jemma’s thoughts to counter-act them and they are clearly marked out as not being okay. The broader (and perhaps more general) writing about the life of someone with a disability feels largely accurate and sensitively done as well.

Overall, very enjoyable to read and with my two big book interests of disability and crime being combined, I had fun reading it from beginning to end. Joelson has another book, about a girl, Kasia, with ME/CFS and it also looks to be a YA thriller/crime style book so there’s a good chance that I will go along and check that out fairly soon as well.

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