Autistic Book Party, Episode 71: Sanctuary

Today’s Book: “Sanctuary” by Andi C. Buchanan

The Plot: A group of queer neurodivergent people live together in a haunted house. They are distressed and must get to the bottom of what’s going on when something starts to hurt the ghosts who live with them.

Autistic Character(s): Pretty much all of them! Plus the author.

I’ve written about planets of autistic people before, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like “Sanctuary,” which presents a situation very much on this current planet – one that could be happening right now, except maybe for the ghosts – where a group of autistic people are doing relatively well in a communal living space they’ve created for themselves. There are a lot of things to like about “Sanctuary,” but my absolute favorite is its depiction of Casswell Park – the large, old, moldering mansion where the main characters live – and what life there is like. The book almost feels like a thought experiment in neurodivergent community, and on that front it roundly succeeds.

Which is not to say that life in Casswell Park is perfect. The place is big and run-down and needs a lot of repairs. The inhabitants are underemployed or intermittently employed, and no one ever quite has enough money. They scrimp and save for small luxuries – like the holiday dinner they’re having in the first scene, or the programmable lights that help soothe the protagonist Morgan’s nerves; but fully repairing the house is a task so large that it might never be completed. The residents are also frequently annoyed by ghost hunters, who see the ghosts of the house as a novelty to investigate and who aren’t very respectful of the residents’ (or the ghosts’!) boundaries. And that’s before they receive the mysterious delivery that starts to harm the ghosts, through some unknown means, and to threaten the living residents’ whole life there.

Buchanan’s characters – as is realistic, for certain kinds of autistic people – are intensely concerned with ethics. They’ve thought long and hard about how to be respectful both to each other and to the ghosts. The latter is refreshing – most depictions of ghosts in fiction don’t really treat them as people, in the sense of having human-like boundaries, needs, and preferences. Some ghosts are better able to interact with the physical world than others. They don’t speak, but the residents of Casswell Park have worked out a way of communicating with them – much as one might communicate with a non-speaking autistic person, offering tools such as letter boards to point to.

Like some authors I’ve reviewed before, Buchanan is careful to explain why their characters think or behave in the ways they do. There’s a real desire to lay out the steps of the logic so that a reader who doesn’t think like Morgan, or like one of their housemates, will be able to understand their motives. This goes for matters as simple as having lights that flash a certain color, or as high-stakes as how the characters respond to a break-in. This isn’t only a narrative technique, but also a character trait for Morgan, who ruminates and thinks about their reasons for doing something throughout any hour of the day. I appreciate how nuanced Buchanan’s explanations are, often illuminating a realistic subtlety of autistic experience, or a difference between two or more different autistic people, that you wouldn’t find in 101 materials:

Saeed and I sit on the bench outside the laundry room, waiting for the load to finish. On a bad day, noise like this is overloading, but today its repetition is comforting. It’s easier, too, to talk when I can’t hear myself.

This level of detail and explanation is also used for the characters’ paranormal experiences. Morgan has heightened perception, while Denny, an older resident, experiences occasional psychokinesis. Rather than being treated as super-powers, these descriptions match perfectly with accounts I’ve heard from people who are interested in the paranormal in real life:

If there’s a name for my ability, I don’t know it. I didn’t even know it was unusual until my teens. Simply put, I can detect lingering sensations attached mostly to places, sometimes to objects. Most of the time, it’s nothing more than that. I can walk into a house and know with utter certainty that something bad has happened there. I can be buoyed by the remnants of a celebration weeks later, one I never even knew happened. Ironically, given what people say about autistic people like me, it’s probably a form of hyper-empathy, but sometimes there’s a bit more to it. Perhaps a dozen times over my life, I’ve caught flashes of someone else’s memory, a brief image lost as suddenly as it’s seen, just slipping from my understanding like a half-remembered dream.
I don’t talk or think about it much. It’s not strong enough to have a significant effect on my life, and outside of this house – where I’m not the only one with an ability not yet explained by science – not that many people would believe me anyway.

There are occasional places where this focus on careful explanation gets in the way of the story. There’s a final fight scene, for instance, where the narrator takes such care to explain how they feel about fighting and what the fight means to them that I found it difficult to focus on what was physically happening. But for the vast majority of the book the explanations are lovely and thoughtful, painting a rich picture of what the characters’ lives are like, what they value, and how they think.

I don’t know what a neurotypical reader would think of it, but to me the life the characters in “Sanctuary” have built together feels peaceful and affirming. In a world where it’s hard for autistic people to get along with others – where there’s often high conflict for us, even within the community – “Sanctuary” shows autistic characters banding together and supporting each other in a way that doesn’t abstract away all those sources of conflict and difference, but instead shows how bridges can be built across them. It feels like a vision of what could be. It’s a balm to my soul. Also, there are ghosts.

Read this if you want a thoughtful, gently paced urban fantasy unlike any other I know of – and a diverse found family of autistic people who are there for each other no matter what.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

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