Someone once told me that she considered my sister’s life to have no value.

Lou has severe autism and cerebral palsy, so she requires constant support from family, friends and paid carers. I stayed with her alone for a fortnight last winter and, during this time, it was me who cut up her food into bite-size pieces, bathed and dressed her, held her hand to help her safely cross the road.

While Lou relies on others night and day, she looks at the world from such a distinctive vantage point that it is difficult to prise apart her enchanting abilities from her apparent disabilities.

The care cuts both ways. During my stay with Lou, while I was helping her to bathe and dress and eat, she was looking after me in ways that were subtle but just as significant.

Before travelling up to stay with her, I had been feeling uncharacteristically low. As an over-achiever in my mid-thirties, setbacks in my career as a novelist had drained me of joie de vivre.

By welcoming me into her daily routine, Lou reminded me that pleasure can be found in all sorts of places: her face would light up when she selected an outfit from the clothes I’d laid out on her bed; in the cinema, she sang along to ‘Tomorrow’ with Annie, clapping her hands above her head; one evening, she dragged me around the marine lake at sunset, forcing me to run against the wind and laughing all the way.

We took this selfie at a botanic gardens during our fortnight together. Moments earlier, I had been burning with irritation at the staff member who had tried to refuse us a carer’s ticket. But Lou brought a smile to my face by shrugging off the injustice, and focusing instead on the snowdrops we had gone there to see.

Later that night we went to a gig and Lou shook hands with all and sundry, repeating her favourite phrases: ‘What’s your name? You’re a ratbag! I like college.’ In this way, we got chatting to a young man, who – full of despair – had just dropped out of university. Lou reached across me to take hold of the young man, and they sat hand in hand for a long time.

I like to think that she was helping him that night, just as she was helping me: that her zest for life was rubbing off on him; that he would value – as I did – her reminder that there can be dignity and kindness in seeking and accepting care.

Owl Song at Dawn by Emma Claire Sweeney, inspired by her sister, Lou, is published by Legend Press, £8.99



by Emma Claire Sweeney
Author of Owl Song at Dawn

About Owl Song at Dawn

Maeve Maloney is a force to be reckoned with. Despite nearing eighty, she keeps Sea View Lodge just as her parents did during Morecambe’s 1950s heyday. But now only her employees and regular guests recognise the tenderness and heartbreak hidden beneath her spikiness.

Until, that is, Vincent shows up. Vincent is the last person Maeve wants to see. He is the only man alive to have known her twin sister, Edie. The nightingale to Maeve’s crow, the dawn to Maeve’s dusk, Edie would have set her sights on the stage all things being equal. But, from birth, things never were.

If only Maeve could confront the secret past she shares with Vincent, she might finally see what it means to love and be loved – a lesson that her exuberant yet inexplicable twin may have been trying to teach her all along.

‘Tender and unflinching, a beautifully observed novel about familial love and stoicism in the face of heartbreak.’ 

Carys Bray, Costa Prize-shortlisted Author of A Song for Issy Bradley


‘I found the novel most poignant and tender in its depiction of disability, without a whiff of sentimentality… it crept under my skin and will stay there for a long time.’

Emma Henderson, Orange Prize-shortlisted Author of Grace Williams Says It Loud


‘Fresh, poignant and unlike anything else. Written with a deceptively light touch, this is a novel full of charm.’

Jill Dawson, Whitbread and Orange Prize-shortlisted Author of Fred & Edie


‘Amazing: fierce, intelligent, compassionate and deeply moving… an important and very beautiful book.’

Edward Hogan, Desmond Elliot Prize-winning Author of Blackmoor


‘Funny, heartbreaking and truly remarkable… the most deeply moving novel I have read in a long time.’

Susan BarkerNew York Times Bestselling Author of The Incarnations


‘The writing is suffused from first to last with human warmth, empathic understanding… an important book – for our lives and consciences.’

Stevie Davies, Booker and Orange Prize-nominated Author of The Element of Water


‘Remarkable… the story and the powerful nature of its telling raise it… to a place where its readers will find many ways into a world that might otherwise be closed to them…  a huge achievement.’

William Horwood, Author of Skallagrigg


‘Unmissable. A beautiful, brave and important novel, which joyfully subverts the prejudices and assumptions of our youth-obsessed, disability-phobic society… Fabulously readable and thought-provoking.’

Sarah Butler, Author of Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love


‘A delight: beautifully observed, deeply felt, and utterly compelling. Sweeney writes with great humour, with wisdom, and with devastating empathy.’

Mary Volmer, Author of Reliance, Illinois


‘An extraordinary tale of kindness, empathy, love, and secrets… I read it in one sitting!’

Elizabeth L. Silver, Author of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton


‘An ambitious and emotional debut worthy of comparison with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and Olive Kitteridge in its uncompromising and tender exploration of a life lost to prejudice and restored by love.’

Antonia Honeywell, Author of The Ship


‘An original, tender and brave first novel.’ 

Maggie Gee, Orange Prize-shortlisted Author of The White Family