Book Review: ‘When Horse Became Saw’ by Anthony Macris

April 16, 2011 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

When Horse Became Saw is a beautiful, gut-wrenching memoir from writer Anthony Macris about his family’s battle with autism.  His son Alex was a seemingly healthy baby boy that suddenly and inexplicably (like so many autism sufferers) fell into a frightening and unstoppable regression at around 18 months.  He stopped engaging with the world as we know it and became trapped in a world of his own, a world where everything became jumbled and nothing made sense.  Alex’s vocabulary began to deteriorate and words he once knew lost their meanings.  The word ‘horse’ had become ‘saw’.

What follows is an eye-opening journey into the lonely world of (severe) autism and a family’s struggle to provide the best possible future for their son.  It’s an old cliche, but Alex’s case was truly a parent’s worst nightmare.  Autism is a condition with no concrete cause, no known cure, and vastly different philosophies on treatment.  It is a condition that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat, and was and is criminally underfunded by the government, leaving parents in impossible situations.  It’s also a condition that ranges in severity, and Alex’s condition is at the far end of the spectrum, the severe kind.

Watching your child deteriorate before your eyes, knowing that he will never lead a normal life, and worrying about his future after you die — these are the things Macris and his wife Kathy have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.  The simplest of tasks (such as putting on a pair of socks) can take weeks to learn.  A child can go for months without any noticeable progress.

Worst of all, nothing you can do will ever be enough.  Working harder to make more money for his treatment means you get to spend less time with him.  Spending more time with him means you make less money for his treatment.  It can plunge the most optimistic of parents into despair.  That sense of helplessness can make a person question their worth as a father, a husband, a man.  It’s the type of feeling that can make a parent do something drastic, like killing their own child, a tragic reality that has happened before and is discussed in the book.

Having said all of that, When Horse Became Saw is not all doom and gloom.  Far from it.  I actually found it to be a strangely uplifting book to read.  There are moments of genuine happiness, of hope, of friendship, of selfless kindness, of a parent’s unconditional love for their child.  It became clear to me that despite his disadvantages, Alex is one of the lucky ones.

It is also an amazingly educational read that provides a wealth of information on autism — the difficult-to-define condition itself, the treatments available, the relevant national bodies, the state of public funding and private care — without ever being dry or textbook-like.

Much of that is due to Macris’s brilliant writing.  He works as a tertiary level creative writing teacher and it shines through.  Being a book for everyday mums and dads, the style of the book is simple, elegant and subtle, though occasionally the craftsmanship of a skilled writer rises to the surface through his imagery and vocabulary.  The quality of the writing is not something that is immediately apparent to the regular reader, but if you look closely, you’ll see Macris must have agonised over each sentence.  The book is a perfect blend of showing and telling — informative when it needs to be and evocative when it should be.  The passages describing his innermost thoughts and reflections are uncannily self-aware, piercing and heartfelt, and the scenes describing Alex’s diagnoses and treatment are vividly brought to life.  How he managed to write this book while teaching and making money and caring for his child all at the same time is a remarkable achievement in itself.

As someone whose extended family has been struck by autism on more than one occasion, this was a book that resonated with me far more than I had expected.  While it was beautifully written and a fine page-turner, I found it difficult to read on because it was so heartbreaking and infuriating at times.  But it’s a book I ultimately enjoyed, I’m glad I read, and I would gladly recommend to others.

4.5 stars out of 5

For more information check out the book’s page at Penguin here.  Anyone who has ever had a family member with autism or mental illness, and everyone who enjoys an engrossing read should read this book.