Owl Song at Dawn

Sweeney, Emma Claire (2016). Owl Song at Dawn. London: Legend Press.


Following the life of a fictional Morecambe family from the 1930s to the present day, OWL SONG AT DAWN reveals a hitherto hidden aspect of Britain’s history of learning disability, thereby challenging dominant cultural representations.

The novel comprises first-person narration by Maeve Maloney – a septuagenarian spinster who, in her youth, had been fêted as the cleverest girl in town – and that of her twin sister, Edie, who was diagnosed as ‘severely subnormal’.

Drawing on learning disability oral history and participatory research, OWL SONG AT DAWN strives to render in language the experiences of those with profound learning disabilities for whom access to language might appear limited. The sections narrated from Edie’s point of view are shaped by repetition, fracture and lacunae. These vignettes disrupt and illuminate the more realist approach to narrative employed in Maeve’s sections. In so doing, the novel asks how best – both ethically and linguistically – to tell the silenced stories of those least able to answer back.

OWL SONG AT DAWN focuses on one of the families of the 1930s-50s who resisted the segregationist pressure of the authorities by fighting to raise their children together at home. Although this was the majority choice – the UK has never institutionalised more than one third of those with learning disabilities (Cohen 2019) – this is still the more subversive and more silenced narrative. This novel aims to counter the narratives of segregation, which have dominated both ‘official’ history and cultural representations. Thus, in OWL SONG AT DAWN the differently silenced first-person voices of Maeve and Edie are interspersed with starkly contrasting extracts of ‘official’ documentation. Such a method of narration brings the personal into the political by subverting the authority of the family’s recorded history while calling into question the twins’ apparent voicelessness.

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