Patience by Toby Litt review: The world from a curious angle

A fresh, unusual and completely charming perspective on friendship

Toby Litt: Patience is a story full of humour as well as quiet tragedy. Photograph:  Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images

Toby Litt: Patience is a story full of humour as well as quiet tragedy. Photograph: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images

It is 1979 and Elliott lives in an orphanage. He uses a wheelchair because he is unable to speak or move very much. Elliott’s head rests perpetually on either his left shoulder or his right, so he sees the world always at an angle. And this perspective, it turns out, is fresh, unusual and completely charming.

Toby Litt’s novel Patience is the story of Elliott’s brief but treasured friendship with a blind mute boy named Jim. Although he is called – and sometimes calls himself – a “spastic”, “mongoloid”, or “imbecile”, it very quickly becomes clear that Elliott is hugely intelligent. He has impressive powers of observation and an astonishingly detailed memory. He may not be able to speak or gesture clearly, but his other senses are powerful. He can tell from a child’s smell how long they have left in the orphanage: “if the girls started to smell of iron and fishpaste or orange marmalade and drains then I knew they would soon be leaving us to go to a women-only ward”. He can distinguish between the songs of a greenfinch and a blackbird, and he has perfect pitch.

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