‘Awash in Talent’ by Jessica Knauss

“It reads like fiction, and I feel challenged to add up all the clues.” This is a marvellous book: fiercely intelligent, highly perceptive and beautifully written. Jessica Knauss is certainly awash in writing talent. I was gripped throughout by her protagonists, and quite surprised to discover that the author is not in fact a practising psychotherapist with a degree in psychology. I was not, however, surprised to discover her long involvement in the writing and editing of literary fiction. That was evident on every page.

jessica-knauss-awash-in-talentThe book consists of first-person narratives by two women and one teenage girl. They are writing journals to describe the thoughts, feelings and motivations which have led them to behave in the ways they have and still do. Emily was six when her ‘talented’ and – it eventually emerges – ‘other-talented’ sister Beth was born, and “remembers being distinctly piqued when I finally figured out that she wasn’t going to leave as quickly as she had come.” Emily’s total lack of empathy with anyone else’s point of view becomes increasingly evident as her journal unfolds and she offers what seem to her to be perfectly reasonable and logical explanations for behaviour that the reader cannot fail to find increasingly bizarre and repellent. The author’s control of the pace at which this part of the story unfolds and the skill with which she gradually reveals the depth of Emily’s delusion is truly admirable.

Kelly first saw the Pyrokinesis Management Academy – school for firestarters – when she was ten years old. Now she lives in it, and is writing her journal because “this little book is the only bit of flammable paper I’ve been permitted.” She places it by her bedside in the hope that it will go up in flames sometime during the night, because she “hasn’t yet learned to control the fire inside.” Her story is one of ‘normal’ teen angst exacerbated tenfold by her profoundly unwished-for ‘special talent’ and the unbearably repressive nature of the ‘educational’ institution in which she has been incarcerated as a danger to herself and to others. Her talent manifested itself when she unintentionally set fire to her mother and burned her beyond recognition. She is living a nightmare, but then discovers that Emily’s sister Beth has a talent that can help her make amends…

Dr Patricia Blundt is a psychic whose journal deals with her own very considerable problems as well as describing the difficulties she has in dealing with Emily, whose case has been assigned to her. Psychologically complex people send her pictures with a muted soundtrack that has nothing to do with what she is seeing. She married the husband her journal is addressed to because “you never did that to me. Despite your outward histrionics, you were a one-note sensory experience.” Ouch.

‘Awash in Talent’ is about special abilities, and how the people who possess them deal with the fact that they are considered ‘freaks’ by the majority of people who don’t and are often ignorant, prejudiced and frightened when it comes to dealing with and ‘controlling’ such people. Jessica Knauss’s exploration of human behaviour in these circumstances is razor-sharp, at times seriously painful, and always very well-written. I was not surprised to discover that some reviewers didn’t understand and couldn’t cope with the book. I urge the author not to be downcast by the literary limitations of some reviewers. Hamlet once referred to “a play that pleased not the million, ’twas caviar to the general.” I myself write for bright children from 10-110 years, and after receiving a couple of inane reviews early on from readers who just didn’t get it, I now always add: “That isn’t everyone.” T.E. Lawrence put it well when he said: “I cannot answer for the desert, only for myself”.

“Awash in Talent” is written by an exceptionally talented author, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.