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The Voice Gallery: Travels with a Glass Throat

by Keath Fraser

Keath Fraser’s voice was a choppy, strangulated, and unintelligible mess. Told for years that his mysterious ailment was psychological, he searched in vain for some inner failing that could explain his affliction. The Vancouver novelist became increasingly ashamed and withdrawn and watched his teaching and literary careers suffer. Then his wife had a horrifying seizure. Her neurologist unexpectedly told Fraser that his vocal problems were the result of an illness called spasmodic dystonia, and that it could be treated.

The treatment, unluckily, involved putting a six-inch needle of Botox poison into Fraser’s neck, with highly unpredictable results. But the needle temporarily gave Fraser his voice back, and he set out around the world to find fellow sufferers and collect their stories. He meets a succession of social outcasts who have lost careers and spouses; who are terrified of everyday conversations; and who have endured depression, quackery, inaccurate diagnoses, and even electric shock therapy.

Unfortunately, Fraser obscures otherwise dramatic events by attempting a wordy literary style at the beginning and end of his memoir, leaving readers wondering what has actually happened. The account of his travels is handled much better.

It is an inordinately tricky thing to understand and capture the quiet details of people’s lives, yet Fraser does it with the ease, fluency, and objectivity of an excellent literary journalist. His material’s universal appeal lies partly in the heartbreaking struggles of other victims and partly in their bravery and innovative coping strategies, familiar to anyone who has battled a lengthy illness.

Fraser also has some fascinating observations about voices, the kind that only someone with a tenuous voice could make. He has a good ear for others’ speech, and travels from the lows of mangled conversation to the magnificent sounds of divas, actors, and a celebrated voice coach, all of whom are in command of the full range and playfulness of the human voice.