Sebastian James Murphy is twenty years, six months and two days old. He loves swimming, fried eggs and Billy Ocean. Sebastian is autistic. And lonely.
Veronica wants her son Sebastian to be happy, and she wants the world to accept him for who he is. She is also thinking about paying a professional to give him what he desperately wants.
Violetta is a high-class escort, who steps out into the night thinking only of money. Of her nursing degree. Paying for her dad’s care. Getting through the dark.
When these three lives collide, and intertwine in unexpected ways, everything changes. For everyone.
Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, This Is How We Are Human is a powerful, moving and thoughtful drama about a mother’s love for her son, about getting it wrong when we think we know what’s best, about the lengths we go to care for family and to survive.
When I read the blurb – at least the part about Sebastian’s mum offering to pay an escort to have sex with her autistic son – I felt just a tiny bit uncomfortable. I know you would do anything for your children, but this is a bit extreme – isn’t it? But in reality she sees the person she loves most in the world growing up in pain because his physical needs are not being met. Paying for sex would be like paying for his swimming lessons or buying his food wouldn’t it?
The problem with Veronica’s solution is that she is not being honest and she’s lying to protect him. She’s buying sex and pretending to Sebastian that it’s love. That the girl she finds for him wants a relationship with him. In an attempt to quash other people’s prejudices, she is perpetuating her own. Is it the only way he gets to have sex, by buying it for him? Does she not trust that eventually he will find his own way.
I worked with someone whose son was autistic and she worried about his inappropriate behaviour – walking into his sisters’ rooms naked for instance – what would happen when he was in his teens and he did the same thing with strangers? Sebastian is obsessed with sex – if he finds a girlfriend will he do something inappropriate? Much safer then to buy him a ‘girlfriend’ so he can relieve his urges.
After a few paragraphs, I no longer felt uncomfortable (maybe a little on occasion) and I fell in love with the characters. Maybe not so much Veronica (though I may well have done the same thing under the circumstances) but with Sebastian and Isabelle. Sebastian is obsessed with routine and order. It’s what grounds him.
Isabelle’s father has had an accident and is in an induced coma. His last words to her before they put him under were to keep him at home. But how can she pay for his treatment and round-the-clock nursing while she completes her nursing degree? His business is failing and there is no money. Too shy to be a lap dancer (and she can’t dance anyway), Isabelle becomes a high class escort calling herself Violetta after the heroine of the Opera La Traviata, and offering her services online through an agency. But it soon turns ugly and at times dangerous, so when Veronica approaches her and offers her a fortune to have sex with her beautiful boy Sebastian, it’s an offer too good to refuse. Or is it?
This Is How We Are Human is written with so much love and compassion. It challenges everything we think we know about autism and even the prejudices we don’t realise we are carrying. I read it in two days. I woke up at 6am and read for an hour before work. I read it in my lunch break. I took it upstairs and finished it after tea.
By the end of the book, I was crying so much I couldn’t see the page. To say I was crying for Sebastian would make me just another person feeling sorry for him. In many ways it would be patronising and judgemental. Like Veronica I wouldn’t be letting him find his own way in his own time. But I cried freely for Isabelle, who was trying so hard to help everyone and eventually heal her shame. But this is not a sad story. It’s a celebration of life and it’s full of joy. I defy you not to fall a little bit in love with Sebastian. This is a book that everyone should read.
Incidentally, a couple of months ago we built a pond in the garden. We bought six fish. Only two survived. I have called them Flip and Scorpion in honour of Sebastian.
Many thanks to @annecater for inviting me to be part of #RandomThingsTours.
About the Author
Louise Beech is an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015. The follow-up, The Mountain in My Shoe was shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize. Both of her previous books Maria in the Moon and The Lion Tamer Who Lost were widely reviewed, critically acclaimed and number-one bestsellers on Kindle. The Lion Tamer Who Lost was shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award in 2019. Her 2019 novel Call Me Star Girl won Best magazine Book of the Year, and was followed by I Am Dust.
Her short fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting for the Bridport Prize twice. Louise lives with her husband on the outskirts of Hull, and loves her job as a Front of House Usher at Hull Truck Theatre, where her first play was performed in 2012.
“Though This is How We Are Human is fiction, the premise was inspired by my friends, 20-year-old
Sean, who is autistic, and his mum Fiona. Fiona had spoken to me about how much Sean longed to
meet a girl and have sex. No one talks about this, she said – the difficulties navigating romance often faced by those on the spectrum. It ’s an issue that I wanted to explore. Fiona and Sean encouraged me and guided me through the book; Sean regularly consulted on dialogue, rightly insisting that his voice was heard, was strong, and was accurate. I cannot thank my extraordinary friends enough for their help and support.” Louise Beech