The author's own experience with an autistic child clearly translates to her work.
Daniel Isn't Talking paints an authentic and engaging portrait of human emotion, personal imperfection, the triumphs and failures of relationships, the artlessness of society in understanding and accepting disability, and the undeniable power of love.
Leimbach's fourth novel travels to London and the home of Stephen and Melanie Marsh and their two children, Emily and Daniel. Three-year-old Daniel's increasingly odd behavior and subsequent diagnosis with autism begins to topple the Marsh's idyllic, picturesque world, and Melanie scrambles to understand and conquer the silence that is quickly consuming her son. Stephen's denial and Melanie's depression undermine their marriage until their relationship gradually degenerates. Melanie is left empty-handed and begins selling off her material surroundings to scrounge small sums of money for Daniel's mounting treatments. Meanwhile, she struggles to preserve her only remaining happiness -- her children. Melanie agonizes over her son, for whom learning a single word is an impossible feat. She fends off Stephen's crticisms, his disapproving family, and his svelte once-ex-now-reunited lover Penelope, alongside countless experts and strangers who would see Daniel deposited in a special home for others like him. "Like him" is unacceptable to Melanie. She knows Daniel will talk. She knows he will relate. One day Daniel will play, speak and behave almost like a normal boy. She just needs to stay afloat until then.
Leimbach's introduction to autism is honest. In Daniel, she writes her way through difficult territory without pitying, undermining, vilifying, or simply accepting the social discourse surrounding the disability. The author's ease at identifying the ways in which experts, family members, friends, and strangers confront diagnosis and treatment of autism according to unspoken norms, both engages the reader and challenges his or her own assumptions. Leimbach never reduces Daniel as simply a handicapped boy, choosing instead to focus on the complexity of his relationship to the surrounding world -- seemingly more normal than one could imagine. Leimbach is fearless in her portrayal of the more mundane emotional, financial, physical, and other strains on parents and families of disabled children, particularly those like Melanie who choose to fight oppressive norms and attitudes, rather than accept their child as a burden or pariah.
Leimbach's heroine is far from epic or glamorous, but she is courageous. Her physical and mental individuality disappears as she becomes inexorably connected to Daniel through her battle against his autism; his isolation, in turn, becomes hers. Melanie's friends and allies disappear, and Leimbach seems unforgiving in her narrative, but Melanie's refuses to give up on her son.
Daniel Isn't Talking arrives at an important time for increasing social consciousness about autism diagnosis, education, and other treatment and support programs. Older written, filmic, and media narratives frequently reduced Autistic children as reticent, unpredictable, and socially alienated individuals, or altogether confused autism with the less severe Asperger's Syndrome. Autism still is relatively mystifying -- its causes have been attributed to heredity or genetics, infant vaccination programs, exposure to environmental chemicals, viral infections, and more. Leimbach introduces many of these speculations, focusing her attention on the impact this absence of attributable causes has on families living with autism. The author's own experience with an autistic child clearly translates to her work and, above all else, supports and validates the emotional journey facing both Melanie and today's parents of autism.
Leimbach's novel is fulfilling and real. It moves slowly at times and at other seems to travel in circles, but spends most of its time developing a rich emotional core. In many ways, the book progresses like life -- it does not force growth or change in its characters, rather patiently lets the novel's truth reveal itself. It is grabbing, poetic, and tender. Whereas some novels rush you forward, Daniel is deliberate and unhurried, and requires a significant emotional investment from the reader. At times, Daniel is filled with humor. At times, it is somber. Readers gain an honest understanding of and concern for Melanie's struggle, and ultimately begin to care for Daniel alongside her. Though the work is not a memoir, the novel contains a slice of Leimbach's own life and experiences. The author is deeply invested in her story and her characters, and it shows.