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Prize-winning novelist has sight restored

1.0 from 3 votes
Thursday, September 03, 2009

Her blindness led to her living the life of a recluse, suffering a broken leg and a catastrophic house fire.

But after two years of sightlessness, the prize-winning novelist Candia McWilliam can once again see.

McWilliam's sight was restored five weeks ago after pioneering surgery cured the rare disorder, blepharospasm, which forced her eyelids to close permanently over her otherwise healthy eyes. Living without sight, she said, "was frightening". "My life is visual I am not athletic. My gift was to see the world and interpret it."

The Edinburgh-born writer, a past winner of the Guardian fiction prize for her 1994 novel Debatable Land, has said she is now enjoying simple pleasures again: "flowers, children, newspapers, cooking, Pedro Almodovar films. The light in Scotland".

The disorder gradually took hold in 2006, the year she was a Booker prize judge. Two years ago, McWilliam, now 54, had to be led on stage at the Edinburgh international book festival. She will be the closing speaker at this year's book festival tonight, reading unaided from her uncompleted memoir.

McWilliam's sight was restored after another blepharospasm sufferer from London read an article she had written about her condition for the Scottish Review of Books and made contact. They eventually met, and her new friend told her about Alexander Foss, a surgeon in Nottingham who specialised in treating the disorder.

In January, McWilliam had the first phase of surgery, to transfer tendons from behind her knee to hold open her eyelids , only the 15th person in the world to have the operation. There was further surgery in June, and last month the pads on her eyes were finally removed.

In an interview with the Sunday Herald, McWilliam credited her recovery to "the power of words". She said: "It is a grace. People frequently say it is a miracle, but it is a blessing. It is a return to life. If that piece had not been published I would not be sighted. Cause and effect. The power of words."

Despite her blindness, McWilliam still worked on two books, a memoir she began dictating as she was losing her sight, which will be published next August, and a novel, See Saw, which was composed on the Hebridean island of Colonsay, where she spent much of her childhood.

She has two other novels "stacked up" in her head, she added. Throughout her blindness, she stayed at home, listening to audio recordings of works by Charles Dickens and James Joyce.

During this period came the house fire and a fall down stairs, which caused her to break a leg. She was left living out of a suitcase with her family. She followed Barack Obama's campaign and election on the BBC World Service the tears she shed at his victory briefly relieved her eyes, giving her "a bit of sight that morning".

McWilliam said the sightlessness led her to shun the outside world. "I didn't have eye contact, so I took the line of least resistance and ceased to have human contact."

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Author: By Severin Carrell
1.0 from 3 votes
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