Jessica Mann

An Invisible Bullet

The Man Who Lost His Language


Allen Lane The Penguin Press 256pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Professor Sir John Hale was a brilliant scholar, teacher and writer. He was also a famously delightful man, loved and admired by everybody who knew him. In July 1992, just as he finished his magnum opus, The Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance, he suffered a massive stroke. He was taken to the local accident and emergency department, where he lay untended on a trolley for hours. After finally being given a bed in a filthy ward, he was kept alive. But he was offered no treatment or hope. When, after a week, the consultant finally deigned to speak to his wife, Sheila Hale, it was to tell her that it would be a waste of time to try to rehabilitate John. ‘You’re still relatively young, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life tied to an infarct. Take my advice. Put him in a home.’

Instead, Sheila fought to get him away, first to another, better hospital, then back to their own home. For although the stroke had deprived John of the ability to speak or write, it had not destroyed his brain or personality. In this heartfelt, passionate account of the years that followed, she explains that she had taken her husband’s superior intellect and imagination for granted for more than half her life, and right until the end it remained an essential article of faith for her that John could think as clearly as ever, and understood what people said to him. In fact, she found that he still could, without uttering a single intelligible word, follow and take part in the most rapid and demanding conversations. But he remained speechless: aphasic.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'The physical courage he demonstrated as a young man [...] gave way to intellectual power; radical thought, gifted… ,
    • 'While Jane Austen didn’t perhaps achieve the full recognition that she deserved in her lifetime, even then she out… ,
    • 'All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And t… ,
    • 'You are interested in a particular subject; basic research hardens this interest into an obsession, after which th… ,
    • 'Keynes predicted that future generations would enjoy such an improved standard of living that they might work just… ,
    • 'Various dislocations ... emerge, iceberg-like, out of a troubled sea of unconscious motivation and confront Eisenb… ,
    • Today is the first today of the – they've got some excellent events coming up over the next two weeks.… ,