It’s rare that my mum introduces me to authors that I fall in love with, because we have such different taste and opinions. My popular culture loves come much more from my dad – Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Crime, Mystery… mum is much more into non fiction and heavy theology! So it always amuses me that she accidentally introduced me to one of my favourite authors by recording a TV programme. The 2013 ITV1 adaptation of Ice Cream Girls was the first introduction to Dorothy Koomson I had. I remember watching it, enthralled and disgusted, going on an emotional journey with these poor girls and their horrific past. And when the series was finished, I had to read it. And then read some more. I’ve read The Rose Petal Beach, The Woman he loved before, Goodnight Beautiful, My Best Friend’s Girl and, of course The Ice Cream Girls, to name just a few. But I hadn’t really realised that Koomson was still writing, so imagine my excitement when I walked into the airport WH Smith to get a drink and discovered this brand new novel facing me, in the ‘newly released’ section and part of the ‘buy one get one half price’ sale. Well, it would have been rude not to.
I’m never quite sure what I’m getting myself into with Dorothy Koomson. Whilst abuse and suffering are key themes of her novels, so too are the restoration of old relationships, the emotional turmoil of separation and the damage of lack of parental affection. So I never research too far into the novel because I want to experience it rather than simply read it. So, if you do plan to read this I would suggest that you go ahead and do so before reading a sentence further into this review, because to truly know its power, you have to go in ‘blind’, as it were.
Roni and Nika share a name and a love for ballet. They are supposed to be best friends forever, their lives interwoven through twists of fate. But Roni lets Nika down and the act of betrayal is unforgivable.
Roni becomes a nun, putting her suffering behind her in the search for the Great Silence.
Nika becomes involved in an abusive relationship before spending ten years living in the street, finding the Great Silence in the music that she is always listening to.
On the surface, this is a story of abuse. Of how it can happen in the family and outside it. Of how those who suffer continually punish themselves, and how, having had their childhood ripped away from them, they can’t ever escape what it has made them. It is the story of an abuser winning for 20 years.
But it is so much more than that.
The truth is a key theme throughout the novel. Nika is a steady truth teller. She stands up to their ballet teacher, Mr Deaneaux, by telling her parents, and the police about the abuse she has suffered. As a result, even though she is not believed (which I will come onto) she is able to live a life secure in her sense of self. Yes, she ends up in an abusive relationship, but she escapes. Yes, she is homeless, but she finds her place there and doesn’t lose that kindness and compassion that define her. Ultimately, she is the one who can bring reconciliation because she has shared the truth from the start.
Of course, you can’t have a novel with a key theme of truth without having someone holding it back. Roni fulfills that purpose. It isn’t until the final chapters that her truth comes to the surface. What for Nika began at 11 when they started ballet, for Roni had been a constant since she was 8 years old. The uncle that she both adored and despised had abused her, and if she told the truth about Mr Deaneaux she would have to tell the truth about her uncle. Lies hide lies which protect everyone from the truth. Koomson captures the atmosphere in which horror like this grows with skill and delicacy. From the different perspectives of the story telling, you can see what the facade has done to the two women, and how the trauma of sexual, emotional and physical abuse can transform the way your brain works, and the way you face life.
Or the lack thereof.
Nika’s parents don’t believe her and force her to go back time and again to the ballet teacher. Their lack of belief, their disinterest in their child’s abuse, is indicative of a society which doesn’t know how to deal with the taboo.
2012 was a huge year for survivors of sexual abuse. With the death of Jimmy Savile and the accusations, arrests and prosecutions that followed, a silent law of secrecy was lifted. Sexual abuse became something we could talk about, should talk about, and something that we should act upon. Women who had hidden their shame for years stepped forwards as survivors. This is even more true as Donald Trump becomes president, and survivors of such abuse are marching together, refusing to be cowed by a man who views women as objects free to touch.
But Nika’s parents came from a time long before that. The original abuse during the ballet takes place in the 90s. It was ‘better’ to deny it had even happened than to acknowledge and act on the crime. As a child, you weren’t a survivor, you were a victim and of course, you must have misunderstood, led them on or brought it on yourself. There was no space in society for sympathy or understanding, even from the police. Koomson captures that dark time, where lying seemed the only way forwards, with skill and precision, and the products of that attitude are seen in Nika’s parents and Roni’s mother.
But Koomson doesn’t just portray a dark and justice-less time. In 2016, when both girls speak out, there are reactions around them which redeem them.
Roni’s mother knew about the abuse and allowed it continue. Her failure as a protector of her child is what led to Roni not being able to speak out when Nika did, because her own mother had allowed this to happen. When Roni’s father finds out, he has no doubts about Roni telling the truth. He is not able to take away the years of abuse and pain, but he is able to reach his arms out and apologise. Roni’s mother remains in denial, but her father seems the harm those years have done and does all he can to make it right.
But Roni had never been disbelieved because she had never spoken up. The most heart-wrenching moment for me was when Nika returned to warn her parents what was going to be happening in the news, while her sister was there. Sasha was so glad to see Nika, glad her sister had returned. Nika’s line – ‘Sasha believes me. Roni believes me. Two people I know believe me the first time they hear what I have to say.’ (p. 425). Yet Nika’s thought, when her sister has bundled her up and protected her, is this. ‘Mummy didn’t speak once’. (p. 425). Koomson paints a cry to all the mothers out there. Believe your children. Trust them and believe them. Because it is you that they will turn to for belief, and one indication of disbelief and they will blame themselves and allow the pain to continue. No mother has the right to hurt their daughter in the way that Nika’s mother did.
I recently watched A Streetcat called Bob. I read it a few years ago, and was moved once again by the powerful portrayal of life on the streets. I was not expecting that to be echoed so closely by Koomson. Nika’s ten years living on and off the street, the power plays and rape attempts and friendship and drug addiction… it was so difficult to read and impossible to comprehend. The idea that these people are ‘invisible’ to us, that we choose not to see them every day was a really powerful statement, because of its truth. We don’t always see what is around us. We don’t acknowledge the suffering of others, and we can’t always help. Nika does something unusual by helping a young 14 year old girl to pay off her debt. But despite the loyal friendships that are developed, there is no trust. I can’t imagine living like that, and Koomson paints a very bleak picture of that life.
While Nika is there she calls herself Grace Carter. It was a powerful moment when, in the open wound of truth and hurt, she wished that she could be back to being Grace, rather than facing up to the damage of her past. This is what is so horrific – it was better to have nothing, mean nothing and potentially die, than to revisit her childhood abuse and abuser.
There is so much more to say about this novel, so many more layers to unwrap. Koomson takes a brave stand on a controversial issue, giving it a human face and name.
The Savile scandal has led to the arrests of many other celebrities, and encouraged many more women to step forwards with their tales. I believe that When I was Invisible has the power to do this for those who weren’t hurt by celebrities, but by their normal, every day role models, and their family members. It doesn’t have to have been a famous person for it to matter.
I look forwards to reading more Koomson in the future, and hope that this novel finds the readership that needs it the most.