You cannot choose the moments in life which will become perfectly preserved in memory. They are accidents of mood and sensation. Each is a miraculous survival, a tiny treasure. From Zaftig to Aspie has many such moments. It is like opening a jewellery box and seeing the contents sparkle as they catch the light. The author has captured her childhood in Canada with a vivid freshness, giving it an immediacy which suggests that she has not forgotten how it feels to be young.
DJ Kirkby’s earliest memories read like scenes from a road movie, and her nomadic, unconventional home life might have today’s child welfare authorities blenching. There are shadows of poverty, of an unsettled family structure, cruelty from classmates and of sexual abuse, but all these are outweighed by the love of her free-spirited, hippie mother and the easy-going kindness of a loose circle of friends and relations. What emerges is a picture of a little girl who was different. Who preferred pickles to sweets. Who was trusting of animals and people, and unfazed by the weaknesses of human nature. For whom rock music and the scent of marijuana was more normal than playschool. A little girl who found riches in the woods and sea shore, and who grew into a creative, uninhibited, well-balanced woman. The author’s undiagnosed Asperger syndrome contributed to the trials of growing up, but also to her unique and colour-filled view of the world.
The anecdotal nature of the writing is complimented by the episodic structure of the book. No chapter is longer than ten pages; most are only two or three - but this in no way interrupts the flow of the narrative. D J Kirkby’s style is flowing and unfussy, and I was captivated from the outset. Sometimes the originality and aptness of a turn of phrase or choice of adjective stopped me in my tracks; this is practised writing, but it is not slick or formulaic. Her recollections are brought to life by their detail and precision – no dry account this, but a pointillist picture, a pietra dura mosaic in which shards of colour create a picture that is greater than the sum of its parts. Throughout, modesty and humour give the book an uplifting lightness. As D J Kirkby invites us, ‘Welcome to the story of my blunders.’
It is difficult to escape the feeling that all of us share some of the drives and constraints common to autism, and that diagnosis is a matter of degree. This is not to underestimate the difficulties that those on the autistic spectrum face, but it explains why we can relate to the author’s experience. This is not a book about autism; it is a book about childhood and adolescence in a richly unusual world in which, as we later discover, autism is both a hurdle and a gift.