About a month ago, everyone I spoke to on a particular Saturday copped an earful about the book I was at that time reading — Carry the Ocean, by Heidi Cullinan. I was about half way through, and teeming with emotion about it. I found myself reading with tears in my eyes and the words ‘this is so amazing’ caught in my throat.
A few times, I think I even told my cat how incredible the book is.
On listening to me rave about it, those who know me well would ask, “Is this another of those books you’ve been reading?” (referring to male/male romances). At which I point I would have to admit the book was about a male/male relationship, BUT… Even if that’s not your thing, I think it’s a book everyone needs to read, because it feels so important.
Carry the Ocean is a new adult ‘coming of age’ story about two special young men. Emmett, 19, is a highly intelligent computer science/maths student, passionate about trains and numbers, and has autism spectrum disorder. He narrates half the story and tells us frankly about his autism and the ‘octopus in his head’ and how he has to remember what facial expressions mean, because he can’t read them. He explains why he rocks and hums and flaps his hands, why he finds it incredibly difficult to look people in the eyes, and… well, everything he can think of about the way he sees the world. Emmett gives us an insight into the condition that is ASD, while making sure we understand everyone on the spectrum is different. He embraces his ‘superpowers’ and accepts his differences from those ‘on the mean’.
Emmett also has a major desperate crush on Jeremey, the boy over the back fence, who he hasn’t even met yet. Jeremey, 18, has severe depressive disorder and clinical anxiety. He narrates the other half the story (in alternating chapters), providing insight into his mental illnesses, which are initially untreated because his parents are gits with their heads in the sand. In his own words, he’s a mess. He can’t go into a retail store any larger than a small cooperative without a panic attack. He’s so depressed and anxious that he can barely function half the time. The way he describes his mental state at his darkest times is sobering and devastating and gut-wrenching.
One of my favourite scenes comes near the start, when Emmett gathers the courage to introduce himself to Jeremey. He’s told us all about Jeremey in the opening chapter, about how he’s rehearsed what he’s going to say when they meet, how important the moment is to him. Then we get their actual meeting from Jeremey’s point of view, and we come to understand how Emmett comes across to those not in his head. I literally wept while reading that scene (and while writing about it now, a month later), because of its awkwardness, because of Emmett’s caring for Jeremey when he freaks out, because of Jeremey’s willingness to overcome his freak out and see Emmett for the person he is. (Need. Tissues. Now.)
I could go on and on about this book. The growth of friendship and trust and love between the two is beautiful. Emmett in particular is so strong, so insightful, so caring — all wrapped up with his autism. His autism is an enormous part of who is he is, but it doesn’t for one minute define him. Jeremey, in fact, has a much greater struggle to deal with life, largely because he doesn’t have the family support, but also because his mental illnesses have gone untreated for so long.
Emmett really is Jeremey’s saviour, but they both wholeheartedly accept each other for who they are. If one of them is incapable of speech for whatever reason, they text each other, sitting side by side. Or use sign language. This happens quite a lot.
The world needs a book like this. A book that tells the stories of young people (any people) with autism, depression and anxiety, a book that makes us understand the obstacles they face and yet shows us how they can build friendships, fall in love, have relationships, find independence. A book that demonstrates their humanity. The fact these two boys are gay is secondary to the broader issues they each face, but brings its own challenges.
I know Carry the Ocean is only fiction, but I am so thrilled Emmett and Jeremey found each other.
This book has changed the way I view the world, made me more tolerant, made me more understanding. The next one in the series is to be a het romance for Emmett and Jeremey’s friend David, who is a wheelchair-bound paraplegic. Kudos to Heidi Cullinan for writing love stories about these minority groups with flare, grace and compassion.
I am now a book evangelist for Carry the Ocean. Go grab it right now!
Links: Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository (paperback)
7 thoughts on “Book review: Carry the Ocean by Heidi Cullinan”
This sounds like the kind of book the professor from the Intro to Fiction class I just finished up would probably be interested in. While the course description didn’t actually mention it when I originally signed up for the class, it turned out to be Intro to Fiction with a focus on representation of disability, so autism featured rather prominently in a lot of the stuff we read. I was a bit surprised at the beginning of the semester because I was expecting a more generic take on fiction, but I figured I’d just roll with it and we were assigned a lot of good stories and novels.
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I think people are starting to realise how important it is to make sure books represent people from a whole lot of different minority groups. It’s wonderful to see so many authors tackling this — and I’ve seen a lot in m/m romance.
I think it’s particularly fantastic to see people with mental illness and/or autism represented in romance novels, and not in books simply “about” their disability, because love is such a basic human need. Carry the Ocean is such a human story. Love it so much. 🙂
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I meant also to say it’s great that colleges are looking at these issues too! It sounds like you would have got a lot out of that class. Out of curiosity, what books did you look at? The most famous one I’m aware of is ‘The curious incident of the dog in the night time’.
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We actually did read that one. I rather liked it, but most of the class seemed to think the main character was a little bit of a sociopath or something.
Other novels we read:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Anything But Typical
Some short stories we read:
The Yellow Wallpaper
Good Country People
Birthday of the Infanta
The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
The End of the Whole Mess
The Tell-Tale Heart
The material covered a pretty wide variety of genres, really. We also had to watch a few movies.
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Thanks! I read ‘curious incident’ too, some years ago, and I don’t remember it being a favourable depiction…