Francesca Martinez: What The **** Is Normal | Book review by Steve Bennett

Francesca Martinez: What The **** Is Normal

Book review by Steve Bennett

Kicking back against the patronising attitudes that have followed her all of her life, Francesca Martinez insists she doesn't want to be considered an 'inspiration'. Well, if that's the case, she's going the wrong way about it - writing an uplifting, funny, smart and entertainingly eye-opening book about her life with cerebral palsy.

Admittedly the phrase 'her life with cerebral palsy' sounds like an over-earnest turn-off in itself, which is why she prefers the less medical designation 'wobbly', typical of the casual good humour that douses every cliche-busting page of What The **** Is Normal? Now an actress and comedian, she shuns any suggestion she's 'brave' just because there are some things she can't do, challenging the image of the noble disabled person suffering and struggling through life. She is gloriously happy with her lot... and at the times when she wasn't, it was down to other people's awfulness, both deliberate and accidental.

The love of her family meant she had a carefree childhood, but entering adolescence proved more problematical. She was ostracised by her schoolmates – feeling the full brunt of teenage girls' intolerance of those who don't fit their tight parameters of conformity, which any slight outsider, not just a a wobbly one, can surely identify with. Worse, though, were the adults, all with their own astoundingly ill-judged attitudes, varying from the bullying to the sickeningly pious. Even the well-meaning get it wrong, proving far more clumsy with emotions than Matinez is with things.

The perpetual pity, marginalisation and judgement from outsiders enough to crush a girl's spirit, and so it did, and Martinez does not shy away from the misery she endured. She even fell out with her adored dad over doing hated therapeutic exercises that depressed her, when she was happy just to cope, however ungainly.

She found an escape in acting, which she always loved, auditioning and landing a role in Grange Hill just when she was at her lowest ebb... although starring in a hit TV series is probably not a solution open to every disabled person feeling down.

The real turning point was doing a stand-up course, both for the confidence that it gave her to have strangers wanting to hear about her unique experiences, and for the encounter with Dylan – either an inspiring guru or a flaky hippy depending on your point of view – who either way convinced Francesca she was not only worthwhile, but unique, as everyone is, with their quirks, talents and failings. What, the fuck is normal anyway?

She's adopted that cheerfully defiant mantra in her life and in this book, snapping at prejudice and other lazy attitudes by the power of her warm, optimistic and passionate joie de vivre.

The final few chapters take a turn to the soapbox, as she rails against toxic attitudes in individuals, capitalism, and, more importantly, public services. But by this stage we are so on-side with the unnecessary tribulations Martinez as endured, that she's certainly earned the right to air her opinions.

The overriding message of the book is to judge people as individuals, and by what they can do,not what they can't. Out of context that sounds trite, which Martinez never is. This illuminating, sharply-written page-turner is as important as it is entertaining.

• What The **** Is Normal by Francesca Martinez is published by Ebury at £12.99. Click here to order from Foyles for £9.74.

Published: 14 Jul 2014

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