I sometimes think that like Olympic diving, historical fiction should be evaluated not just for its execution, but its degree of difficulty. If it was, Rosie Sultan’s flawed but ambitious debut novel, “Helen Keller in Love,’' would receive a better score.
It is the summer of 1916, and blind and deaf writer Helen Keller is on a lecture tour of the United States. In concert halls, at rallies, and on vaudeville stages, she and her teacher and companion, Annie Sullivan Macy describe the “miracle” that is Helen’s life, not just raising money for the causes they believe in, but almost frantically generating the income needed to keep themselves, Helen’s mother, and Annie’s philandering husband afloat.
“I was tired of being perfect Helen Keller,” our narrator declares on the first page of the novel. “Helen the pure; Helen the tireless worker, the saint, the good girl. I wanted to break free. And it happened very suddenly. Last summer I met a man who awoke all sorts of demons, mad cravings in me. A man who tasted like night.” The man is Peter Fagan, an underemployed journalist who briefly fills in for an ailing Annie, serving as Helen’s assistant, private secretary, and, at least in this novel, lover.
Sultan’s prose in telling their story veers between simple and florid. But her sensibility is consistently contemporary, a wise choice given Keller’s distinctly modern views. An advocate for women’s rights, an unapologetic socialist and fierce opponent to World War I, Keller exposed and challenged oppression and prejudice in all its myriad forms. Her voice in this novel is evocative of any current celebrity’s. She feels imprisoned by her reputation and her fans’ expectations of her, weary of being the meal ticket for her family, and harassed by the press. As much as she loves and needs Annie, she also chafes at their interdependence. And above all, she is unashamed of her own sexuality, eager to express it, and resentful of her mother and sister’s determination to keep her pure and caged within the confines of propriety.
If only she had better taste in men. For much of the book, Fagan comes across as opportunistic, randy, and adolescent (I found myself thinking, “If you slide your hand inside Helen’s blouse one more time I swear I’m going to slap it!”) To Sultan’s credit, we hear Helen’s doubts about his sincerity and his courage; we also see moments in which Peter behaves like an adult with scruples and judgment. But the unsettling thing is that most often, Sultan seems to be as uncertain about her character as we are. As a result, the rapidly signed or kinesthetically lip-read exchanges between Peter and Helen all too often read more like a pale knockoff of Tracy-Hepburn repartee than the dialogue of two grown-ups coping with extraordinary stresses. And the anachronisms are painful as Annie tells Helen to “listen up” and Peter tells Helen that “I’ve got to work on my tan.”
In fairness to Sultan, it’s difficult enough to write a fictional account of someone whose life has already been so documented, not just in biography, but in Helen Keller’s own numerous books. But while she does a fine job of demonstrating how Keller navigates the world with just three senses, rarely does she manage to create the sense of an era that historical fiction demands. By choosing to tell the story from Helen’s perspective, with only the sensory information that touch, taste, and smell can provide, Sultan has no choice but to violate one of the cardinal rules of narrative: Show, don’t tell. Once we get beyond the taste of Peter’s skin, the heat of Annie’s fevered brow, the smell of the woods, and the vibrations of slamming doors, we’re left with just Helen’s somewhat redundant words to tell us about a world that she cannot help us see.
Julie Wittes Schlack, a Cambridge-based writer, can be reached at jwschlack@ gmail.com.