The further I got into Holly Smale’s newest book, The Cassandra Complex (titled Cassandra in Reverse in the U.S.) the more I had the feeling that it is quite remarkable. Smale’s adult fiction debut is a step forward, in some ways, in how autistic people are represented, one that reads very much as being from within the autistic community. This is not a book that depicts an autistic person based on how we appear from the outside, or one that represents one person’s experience in a way that’s completely detached from the broader context of the neurodiversity paradigm. (Although it does depict one specific autistic person’s experience, which Smale helpfully emphasises in the end notes.)
When I started reading, I was a little nervous that The Cassandra Complex could become a “socially awkward autistic person cliche” type book, framed in a sort of contemporary magical realism time-travel narrative. But, having finished it, I don’t think I’ve read another book yet that actually goes into so much nuanced depth in describing the inner emotional life of Cassandra, the book’s autistic protagonist. It feels very much like the work of an author who has explored and thought deeply about ideas like emotional processing, masking, the double empathy problem, internalised ableism, RSD (rejection sensitive dysphoria), and generally being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world. The story is deceptively light and accessible in how it deals with these complex ideas—it shows rather than tells, and I would be really curious to find out what folks who are not so familiar with the autistic community, or these concepts, might get from this book. I hope that they will at the very least encounter some fresh perspectives on how differently each of us might experience and be in the world, and what it might mean to grow up different and in the minority.
Personally, I am particularly excited about the way that Smale has depicted how Cassandra processes and reads feelings (her own and others’) through colour, and how sensitive and nuanced her readings are, even if she might struggle to know what to do with that information. I found this theme very validating for me on both a personal and professional level, because it feels so close to how I’ve intuitively explored my own emotions—not through colour specifically, but through metaphor, imagery, memories, sensations. There are so many gradations and subtle differences between one shade and another, just as there are between feelings in each shifting moment, that words like “angry” or “sad” feel hopelessly useless at capturing. It’s also a very big part of how I work with feelings as a therapist working mostly with neurodivergent folks, and I find that it can be a way for us to connect with feelings collaboratively, without using “neurotypical emotion language,: that can be really engaging and help us to access and reclaim our internal experiences from the neuro-normative expectations we might’ve internalised. I especially love the parts where Cassandra links a colour with extremely sensorily vivid and moving memories, and also where she talks about her own and others’ colours merging, or being hard to differentiate.
It felt good to read a character who is so different from me, and yet very relatable in how she experiences and processes the world. The time travel device quite cleverly explores the common autistic experience of being constantly under a sense of pressure to get social situations “right,” wondering if it went okay, wanting to understand what happened better, or just not having enough time to process. That feeling of “if only I could say exactly the right words in the right order, I could fix everything.” It almost feels a little risky as a device, because for a long while reading the book I was worried about where it was going—whether it was going to become some kind of “learning to be ‘normal’” thing or even a “no one really sees us as weird it’s all in our heads” thing. But it doesn’t do that, while still I think exploring those themes with a decent amount of nuance.
At one point I had to put the book down and stare into the middle distance for a bit because it touched on something personally deeply relatable: The impact of having experienced so much interpersonal trauma, that I sometimes expect rejection all the time, that I’m not 100% sure about the tone or intent—even when there’s no rejection there. I know that this is a common experience for a lot of autistic people, and for me it struck a particular chord as I recently took up my (very lovely) clinical supervisor’s offer of recording all our sessions, so that I could go back and look through all the micro-moments that felt uncertain enough to trigger those rejection panic-demons in me, however small, and be able to see through looking back where a trigger happens, where a missed moment of connection can turn into full-blown RSD, where I was missed in what I was trying to communicate, and where I did the missing. I’m learning so much through using these recordings, and I guess in a sense, that’s time travelling too. I definitely didn’t expect to see a parallel like this come out of this book.
My main gripes with this book are to do with how much it does feel very white, cis, and heteronormative—especially given that it’s set in London, which is such a cosmopolitan city, and also given how queer the autistic community tends to be. This also made the book feel initially less like something I’d get into: A novel that on the surface seemed to be about an autistic girl chasing a guy, with some Greek mythology thrown in. But if that impression had made me put the book down, I’d have missed out on a surprising, fun, and very enjoyable read with many thought-provoking depths.
Absolutely I’d have liked more queerness and diversity in this book (perhaps even more ways to be autistic, though it felt hinted at), that represents more of our community, but it also feels like a way of writing an autistic protagonist that helps me feel hopeful and seen. I feel that Smale has written honestly, reflectively, and perhaps (I hope!) even taken a lot of autistic joy in the process. I hope that this book helps move autistic representation forward, expands readers’ imaginations of what it might be like to experience the world differently, and also help lead to even more diverse portrayals from many more neurodivergent authors in the future.