Weaving Through Like Wings, Your Hands
Elizabeth Earley’s new novel weaves together a handful of discrete stories: a disabled boy trying to establish his identity, a woman trying to come to terms with her difficult parents and her recent divorce, and a man wavering between a traditional heterosexual life and the dangerous pursuit of young men. The disabled boy is Marko; the woman is Kali, his mother; and the man is Todor, her father. They access each other through various devices and textual strategies, including a sensory deprivation box, journals, and a Milan Kundera novel.
Throughout, Earley maintains a skilled, evocative prose style, and she links the characters’ journeys to larger thematic concerns about identity and disability. Marko, 14, has spina bifida, a condition which paralyzes him below the waist. He also has an array of other physical and mental conditions, including scoliosis, synesthesia, and autism. His care requires Kali to sacrifice a great deal, and most recently she has sacrificed her marriage; her husband, David, had too little regard for Marko and what his demands mean for Kali.
As puberty begins for Marko, he desires privacy and a greater understanding of the world. These are hard for Kali to give him, since his care makes her so intimately attuned to him, but also because, as he matures, he wants to know her as a human being rather than just a caretaker. Her cold and difficult family, and her cold and difficult marriage, make it challenging for her to open up to her son.
Marko resorts to reading her diary and using a strange wooden box under her bed, a “dream bed” for sensory deprivation. Within it, he experiences a supernatural regression into the body of a young man, Emil, desired by Marko’s grandfather, who is stationed in Thailand in the 1980s. This encounter shows Marko what it’s like to walk, have sex, and be desired, but it helps him very little with Kali or his real-life situation.
Meanwhile, the chapters that focus on Kali show her to be a loving, hurting woman. Her desires for women complicate her life, as does her fraught relationship with her mother, who helps her care for Marko but not very well. Kali is still grieving her brother, also named Marko, who died young and tragically. The book has many parallels like this: young men, desire, naming. Kali tries to fill her life with peace and kindness partly through yoga and meditation practices, but memories of life in Bulgaria and her family pain haunt her. As she’s caring for Marko, she cannot help thinking of death:
"The incredible smallness and fragileness about him and his bones reminded her of something she couldn’t at first place. Then she remembered: the river in Bulgaria at the foothills. The rhythm of it and how she used to sit and watch for hours. Water finding water, water finding more curves. Once, there was a dead pigeon with its bones sticking out. They looked fragile and fine, and yet strong, like they could be taken apart and then lashed together with willow branches and pine gum to make a raft. A strong raft."
Like Wings, Your Hands portrays people with disabilities—and people with queer sexualities—as multidimensional, flawed, compelling individuals. It’s a book with a decided purpose and message, and a book that offers authentic testimony about life with certain conditions.
Perhaps Marko is stronger, more able, than she allows him to be.
Ultimately, Kali and Marko travel to Bulgaria to visit Todor, who is nearing the end of his life. The visit is intended to be a stabilizing, homecoming move, for the characters and for the book, but the epiphany that results neglects to tie up several of the book’s elements (a life-threatening surgery Marko might have, his complicated school friendships, his experiences in the “dream box”). Earley does, however, create a moving scene of two people truly connecting:
"Marko looked back at her and saw, for the first time in his life, a vulnerable and fallible woman. One who was scared, filled with profound sorrow, and liable to make mistakes, both in judgment and in deed. Marko wasn’t troubled or threatened by this recognition—he was relieved. The relief was mutual, he could tell. It was so apparent that it was nearly palpable between them. Marko imagined a neon sign flashing in the night above them, screaming: I LOVE YOU! I’M SORRY I NEVER REALLY SAW YOU BEFORE! I NEED YOU!"
Like Wings, Your Hands portrays people with disabilities—and people with queer sexualities—as multidimensional, flawed, compelling individuals. It’s a book with a decided purpose and message, and a book that offers authentic testimony about life with certain conditions. As a literary novel, though, it lacks coherence and drive. The novel performs as a delving character study for Marko and Kali, but as a story, it has little momentum. Nevertheless, it’s a worthy book, written beautifully. Earley’s skill with characterization outweighs the book’s difficulties, and makes Like Wings, Your Hands a strongly humanizing contribution to disability literature.
REVIEWED BY KATHARINE COLDIRON
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., The Guardian, VIDA, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in California and here.