The stories we tell to explain autism go back centuries. The Celts believed fairies stole healthy babies and replaced them with elfin spirits. Bruno Bettelheim insisted the problem was cold, witchy mothers. Later, pediatricians and needles would be blamed.
In her pensive first novel, “Time of the Locust,” Morowa Yejidé, a native of the District, offers an original take on the disorder — as a symbol of generational loss and imprisonment of body, mind and soul.
The story revolves around Sephiri, a 7-year-old savant who can draw scientifically accurate renderings of prehistoric locusts but never speaks, makes eye contact or smiles. Sephiri’s muteness and violent tantrums are rooted in the struggle of oppressed people to be heard. But his autism is also a portal to a soothing dream world where dolphins and octopuses speak.
If this sounds complex, it is. But the novel deftly brings together the fantastic and the realistic, and it touches on a variety of issues, from politics, race and murder to disability, domestic tragedy and myth. Though just 242 pages long, it sweeps from Depression-era Louisiana, to New York in the ’60s, to Washington in the mid-’90s.
Every character in the book is in a prison, literal or figurative. Sephiri’s father, Horus, is serving life in solitary confinement in a cell under the Rocky Mountains. His uncle Manden works inside a plexiglass booth in an underground subway system. His mother, Brenda, is trapped in a life gone wrong, the weight of her obese body — and her family burdens — growing each day.
Yejidé is a talented writer, but if she makes one gaffe, it’s layering on metaphors in a clause-heavy baroque. “All through the trial,” she writes of Horus’s sentencing, “the prosecuting attorney had not been a man. He was an entity. The verbal manifestation of an institution. Crime and punishment. Law and order. His voice felt like a weapon, a malevolent presence.” In such instances, less would be more.
But the story is strong and original, and even the minor characters come alive. Brenda is among the most well drawn. Midway through the novel, she sits in her parked car contemplating the future: “They would grow older together. Sephiri would grow bigger and would become an even greater mystery. She would grow larger and frailer under the weight of everything. And she would exist with Sephiri in a rift of time.”
I was that mother once: terrified inside a weary body, unable to explain my missing husband or my feral son. The car, the mystery, the rift — I know them, they’re real. But Yejidé spins them with gold and possibility in this dark and fantastical tale.
Bauer’s third novel, “Forgiveness 4 You,” is due out in 2015.
By Morowa Yejidé
Atria. 242 pp. $25