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"Talent shines on every page of this feisty, bittersweet memoir."   -ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, Grade: A
   

The Sunday Telegraph
reviewed by MELISSA KATSOULIS

Cockeyed is a memoir of going blind and, as you might guess from the title (and the jazzy embossed Braille on the cover) it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Which is no mean feat, considering the subject matter is about as serious as they come. For who does not recoil at the thought of being trapped in their head with the shutters down?

Ryan Knighton started life as an ordinary suburban boy growing up in Langley, British Columbia - albeit one who seemed particularly accident-prone and clumsy. But when, as a teenager, he crashed his father’s car in to a ditch, he just couldn’t explain himself. He knew he’d been driving carefully, and he knew he wasn’t drunk. As far as he could tell, the ditch had just appeared out of nowhere. He couldn’t help noticing things did that quite often.

Unbeknown to him, this was the first sign of the degenerative eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, that would slowly rob him of his sight. When he crashed the car, he thought he could see everything. Now he sees through a hole the size of this letter m.

Before eventually facing “perhaps the most dispiriting thing a newly blind person goes through” and taking up the white cane full time, Knighton’s daily life was characterised by failing to locate urinals and starting conversations with barstools as he tried with increasing difficulty to pass for sighted.

But he describes these pitfalls not with prickly irony or cynicism but with an astonished awareness of the bizarreness of his life - and, indeed,  life in general. Because the things that happen to him - the embarrassing mistakes, the dark sentimental moments, the uninhibited dancing, the deceitful encounters with the opposite sex - happen to everyone. It’s just that most of us have only ourselves to blame. 

But blindness as a universal excuse only cuts one way. As an apparently “normal” looking man (and a particularly cute and stylish one at that),  Knighton never gets used to the awkward moment when  people suddenly  realise he’s blind, inform him indignantly that he doesn’t look blind, and then instantly change their attitude to him.

‘Does he take sugar?’ isn’t the half of it. Once, on holiday with his girlfriend in New Orleans, a pair of thugs accosted them in a dark street and call out the words no middle-class white boy wants to hear, blind or no: “Watcha got?” Having been mugged before,  Knighton knew what was coming next, and braced himself for a drubbing. But the minute the attackers saw his white cane, the atmosphere changed: “We, like, didn’t know y’all couldn’t see nothing’… you look like f***ing some normal guy, you know what I’m sayin’ ”. And what’s more, “I respect your peoples and what you got to deal with, man. We cool?”

But he is not cool. He’s pissed, as they say over there, and spends the rest of the holiday brooding over not the indignity of not having been mugged.

Eventually, however, the years of regret and denial came to an end in as unexpected a way as they began.

You would think that fate had already dealt her cruellest hand with the  retinitis pigmentosa, but one day, out of the blue, Knighton received a phone call telling him that his beloved brother Rory had been found dead. The world was changed again.

“More than anything, his death forced me to make room for a world that didn’t revolve around my blindness. I miss things every day, but what are they? Objects. Phenomena with colour, depth, and shape. They have smells, tastes, textures, and weight…. Sure, I miss these things, but Rory’s death is the first time something in my world went missing. I thought I knew loss, but what did I know? Little. That’s why, when we laid Rory to rest, I tried to put something to rest in me, too. Things grow smaller in the distance, and things disappear. Even blindness can. That’s what I hope for.”

And it takes some hope to live as this man does, knowing that you are missing all the things that your peers’ creative, responsive minds are taking in. Not seeing your family’s changing faces is sad, but knowing you’ll never see your own “last face” is perhaps even worse. Knighton no longer even recognises himself in language; when a shop assistant asks “Can I help you?“, who is “you“?

Ultimately, what makes this wonderfully readable memoir different from others of its ilk is that the author emerges as someone you’d really like to hang out with. He’s funny, imaginative and possessed of a lightly-worn learning that makes his cultural and literary references (from Oedipus’s desire for blindness to an imagined Platonic dialogue on IKEA), well-judged and enlightening.

But best of all, Cockeyed is a unparalleled user’s guide to blindness that will benefit the sighted as much as the sightless. He is a one man de-stigmatization machine for his disability, and if you read this book you will never again feel awkward around someone just because you don’t know how much they can see.



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