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Highlights in the Charts

Strong Female Character by Fern Brady

Review by Jenna Tomlinson

It is a fact that the rate of Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis in females is far lower than that of their male counterparts, with many girls not receiving a diagnosis until later in life. As such, the number of young women living with autism in the UK is a statistic we can never fully comprehend, and their experiences have been grossly under-documented.

Therefore, I was excited to read the hilarious stand-up comedian’s memoir. Brady discusses her diagnosis and her life leading up to it with a wit that can only be described as scathing. Having previously worked as a teacher in a special educational needs setting, I recognised her accounts of ASD’s physical symptoms as episodes and difficulties I had observed in some students. But even in the most distressing segments, Brady tells her story with a deeply moving and unflinchingly honest air.

Part of that honesty includes her reticence to get a diagnosis or even believe she was neurodiverse. She discusses how insufficient representations of ASD, coupled with comments that she couldn’t be autistic because she was ‘making eye contact’ or ‘has a boyfriend,’ compounded her view that she wasn’t autistic, despite evidence to the contrary.

Brady is also candid about her family life: her parents’ less-than-supportive attitude to her struggles with mental health and her strict Catholic upbringing. Coming from a working-class family in Bathgate, she talks about not being “the longed-for IVF children of the middle-aged middle class.” In stark contrast, her boyfriend Connor is incredibly supportive and his side of the story left me almost as heartbroken as hers; his constant drive to educate himself about ASD and his sensitive attitude not only towards her behaviours but also helping her navigate the world with her diagnosis, was profoundly moving.

This memoir is not just about the journey to diagnosis. Brady explores navigating a neurotypical world, both now as a neurodivergent individual and prior to this diagnosis. She explains how the everyday interactions and nuances we take for granted and respond to – greeting people, small talk, metaphoric idioms – are all areas of great exhaustion for neurodivergent people who do not always understand social cues and rules.

With stories of being confused by euphemisms, self-harm, bullying and medical professionals repeatedly failing her, Strong Female Character is not for the faint-hearted, but it is an eye-opening look at just how neurotypically focused our society is – and how absurdly difficult this can be for those falling outside of expectations.

The People on Platform 5 by Clare Pooley

Review by Jenna Tomlinson

What would happen if you actually spoke to your fellow commuters? Well, if your commute is anything like mine, you would probably just be asked to be quiet. But this is the exact premise Clare Pooley proposes in her novel The People on Platform 5.

Iona, an iconic former socialite who now works as a magazine therapist (do not call her an agony aunt), and her dog Lulu have a set routine for their commute, right down to the carriage and seats they occupy. Her fellow commuters are part of that routine, all identified by the nicknames she gives them, such as “Impossibly Pretty Constant Reader.” A man almost choking to death on Iona’s train sets in motion a turn of events that will change all their commutes (and lives) forever as they finally begin to speak to each other. With every commuter bringing a unique skill set and problem to their mismatched group, they develop a friendship that proves to be helpful in unparalleled ways.

Each chapter alternates between characters, sometimes in the order they board or leave their commuter train, so we get a 360-degree view of their joint relationship and their individual problems. It is interesting to see the ways in which their lives weave together and how their strengths build to help each other.

But beneath this fun scenario, the book delves into some hard-hitting topics. Iona grapples with age discrimination at work, as well as remembering her days as an LGBTQ+ activist before same-sex marriage was legalised. Sanjay, an oncologist and fellow commuter, deals with work anxiety and the exhausting schedule of an NHS nurse. Martha, a teenage commuter, experiences bullying and becomes a social pariah after a sexting incident with a boy in her class. Abusive relationships, divorce, redundancy and financial troubles are also faced by other characters, and each issue is handled sensitively by Pooley and the cast she has carefully created.

The People on Platform 5 is a relatively simple read, but I found that this only added to its appeal, as I devoured paragraph after paragraph without even realising it. This is a perfect holiday read.


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