This is a curious little book. When I Have Pedro is published by Hybrid Publishers here in Melbourne and it is indeed a hybrid of sorts – in the way that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a crime novel not really about a crime at all.
Like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the central character in When I Have Pedro has an intellectual disability. Red Coltrane is smarter than the world gives him credit for, and his harmless obsession turns out to be a gift that helps him solve a crime which has stumped the police. Chesterman has captured the thinking processes and mindset of his character well, though I did sometimes wonder how someone almost non-verbal who can read but not write was able (in the world of the book) to narrate his story. A minor quibble.
Red’s communication difficulties (he has a rare form of motor neurone disease as well as an intellectual disability) are central to the story. His passion for patterns and sequences enables him to predict when and where the next arson attack on a church will be, but he can’t verbalise it, and he can’t write. Bizarrely, he gets arrested because he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the one person who did understand him, his carer Pedro, isn’t around to help him.
The plot, however, isn’t what makes this book interesting. I’m not fond of crime novels and I began reading this rather half-heartedly during ad-breaks. But I was soon intrigued by the subtext and kept reading – until two in the morning. (It’s not very long, only 170 pages).
It is an agenda-driven novel, sometimes a little heavy-handed, but not disastrously so. Despite the limitations in his thinking and the very simple prose the narrator conveys a wry sense of humour and an engaging personality, and through him Chesterton reveals the world of an intellectually disabled man living in group housing. It’s hard to tell how old he is but he was a resident at Melbourne’s infamous Kew Cottages* before de-institutionalisation and its closure in 2008. His family has as-good-as abandoned him; his world is peopled with rotating shifts of carers, his co-residents at the house and some co-workers at his sheltered workshop.
With no sense of self-pity Red shows us how the ‘normal’ world treats the intellectually disabled. To accommodate the idiosyncracies of his co-residents, Red has had to learn tolerance and acceptance that would put the rest of us to shame, but when he’s out and about, he encounters overt rudeness, hostility, fear and misunderstanding. The staff at his residence have provided him with a card that he can use to identify and explain himself, but a kind and helpful response isn’t always forthcoming. When, for example, he visits a church across town, he takes a train and then a taxi, because he can’t manage a complex sequence of public transport links. With only 50c left to get back home, he’s stranded when a taxi-driver demands to see how much he’s got and then abandons him. His resilience in this and similar situations is amazing.
I’d like to see this book on secondary school reading lists where, long-term, it might engender a bit more empathy in the community. However, for reasons I shan’t reveal, it’s unlikely to show up in church schools.
John Chesterman is a Melbourne academic specialising in human rights and this is his first novel.
*For those who followed the final years of this institution in the media, the slide-show on this website sanitizes its history somewhat unless you delve deeper. Click on 1976-2008/The Outside World to read about the Minus Children campaign which exposed conditions at Kew.
© Lisa Hill
Author: John Chesterman
Title:When I Have Pedro
Publishers: Hybrid Publishers 2010
Source: review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers