A foray into YA today, an age group I’m not averse to, although I’m not keen on vampires and the like and keep it to the more real-life stuff. In the case of this book, I came to it via the prosopagnosia group I’m in, because one of the two central characters has proso (or face-blindness) just like me (read about my experiences with it here on my professional blog). I have to admit to a little trepidation, because would she get it right? Reader, she did: very, very right. And it was a good read it in its own right, too.

Jennifer Niven – “Holding up the Universe”

(13 March 2019)

A marvellous YA novel with its central characters a fat girl (who used to be America’s Fattest Teen, and has lost enough weight to be able to run and buy clothes at the mall but no more with no plans to lose more) and a boy with the best-described (OK, only) case of prosopagnosia I’ve seen in fiction.

Libby is going back to high school after a couple of years of hiding away and home-schooling, and Jack’s trying to keep an eye on his younger brothers, especially Dusty, who’s just started carrying a handbag around, although this is tricky when he has to constantly recalibrate who they are (he has it worse than me, knowing someone is his mum because it’s a woman in his house and he can extrapolate from there). Libby’s weight loss doesn’t win her a boyfriend, as some more conventional narratives would have it: working on herself and going back to school with her head held high give her friends, and if it’s a choice between losing weight and losing one of her dreams, well, you trust the author on this one. She’s her own authentic self, even when that brings her into the public eye – although the first spotlight on her is not exactly her fault.

The two teens meet when Jack does something disrespectful to Libby but with good motives, to prevent he from having someone more malevolent target her in a new craze (there is no animal cruelty (in fact the elderly cat makes it through to the end) or hazing, as some reviews have mentioned a shocking incident: it is shocking, but not gratuitous). They reach an understanding and start to fall in love with one another, in a nicely believable, supportive and respectful way (sometimes this seems a bit twee in YA books but then the young adults I know are pretty respectful and open-minded, so …).

But the best bits are the bits describing prosopagnosia. Niven has done her research (and thanks those who helped her) and it shows, but is put in naturally. There’s such a good explanation that I will try to remember and use myself:

“So you can see my face, but you can’t remember it.”

“Something like that. It’s not like faces are a blank. I see eyes, noses, mouths. I just can’t associated them with specific people. Not like how you, as in Libby, can take a mental snapshot of someone and store it away in your mind for next time. I take a snapshot, and it immediately goes in the trash. If it takes you one or two meetings to be able to remember someone, it can take me a hundred. Or never. It’s kind of like amnesia or like trying to tell everyone apart by their hands.”

She glances down at her hands and then at mind. “So when you turn away and then you turn back, you’re not sure who I am?”

“Intellectually, I get that it’s you. But i don’t believe it, if that makes sense. I have to convince myself all over again.” (p. 145)

Like the rest of us, he uses signifiers, the way someone walks, the shape of their nose, the colour of their hair, the sound of their voice, to identify them.

And then look at what happens when Jack is asked to hand out test results to the class:

The class is looking at me as I look at them. There are four kids who are definite IDs. Three, I’m fairly sure I don’t know and am not supposed to know (but I’m not completely, totally sure). Eight are in the gray zone, better known as the danger zone. (p. 43)

It even has one scene where, panicked, Jack only sees blurred disks rather than faces with features – this has happened to me very rarely and is very uncomfortable. Libby gets it and announces to Jack who she is when she comes up to him (hooray for friends who do this!) and when he finally “comes out” about it, some friends laugh, some get it wrong, “I heard you went blind,” and some research it and arm themselves with the facts – pretty representative of real life, where it’s always better to tell people, I’ve found.

Libby is comfortable with who she is: “Why should what I weigh affect other people?” she asks (p. 310) but she’s worked hard on herself to get here and shows that’s something people can do. And she’s a powerful force for good in Jack’s life, but also seen as attractive in her own right. A good read and one I will be telling the proso groups all about!


Do feel free it you want to ask me anything about prosopagnosia in the comments!