If you know anything about this book it may be that there was a storm of controversy when it was long-listed for the Women’s Prize. The book’s author, Torrey Peters, is transgender and I think, probably to massively over-simplify the debate, that feminists felt they had struggled for years to carve out spaces for women that were protected from incursion by men, and a transgender woman to them felt like the patriarchy moving in by stealth. I was curious to read it, possibly not to understand the debate so much as the book comes with a cover quote from Carmen Maria Machado, one of my all-time favourite writers, saying ‘So good I want to scream.’
The plot centres around Reese, a trans woman, whose relationship with Amy, also trans, falls apart when Amy detransitions back into a man, Ames. Ames starts an affair with his new boss at work. The relationship is intense, but when she becomes pregnant he doesn’t feel able to raise a child in his masculine guise. He turns to Reese to ask her if she would become a second mother to the baby, helping him to be a parent from a more truthful place and the birth-mother, Katrina, somewhat amazingly, agrees to include her.
I’ve been at such a loss trying to write this review because it’s so hard to sum up how I felt about the book. On a technical level I found the writing uneven. The characters only felt vivid when the author had them individually in the spotlight. As soon as Peters brought them together something about the intensity of the characterisation was lost. Strangely for a book with such a huge amount of explanation in it, it felt confusing. I found the sex (of which there is a lot, written about in a way that managed to be simultaneously specific and vague) offputting. It felt like the thing that governed these characters and dictated their actions, reducing them, somehow, and I suppose that just seemed like a curious choice for the author to have made. And it was long. So long. I got tired of wading through paragraph after paragraph with sentences like ‘Reese is a veteran of the horrific social gore that results when individuals fight personal battles with unnecessarily political weaponry on a queer battlefield mined with hypersensitive explosives.’
And yet there were stories within this novel that riveted my attention. The first time Amy visits a clothing store aimed at transgender people, her delight at being able to shop openly for the things she has wanted for so long, and her horror when a cis (a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) woman and her daughter enter the store by mistake and decide to brazen it out, suddenly rendering everything that Amy had coveted cheap, tawdry and fake. Or Reese attending the funeral of a friend who had died by suicide, reflecting that these funerals were so frequent she had developed her own kind of mental armour for getting through them. And certain thoughts that resonated, Reese’s conviction that as a trans-woman she had most in common with cis divorced women because they, like her, had been cast adrift from the usual structures that govern society, and had to make a place for themselves anew (and so interesting considering that with Deborah Levy's living autobiography still vivid in my mind). It was also eye-opening. Towards the end as Reese prepares to be co-parent it is clear that there is a course of mediation she can take that will allow her to breast-feed. And I just thought ‘wow’, I didn’t know that was possible. And it’s interesting, isn’t it, because if you know that is possible then it does make you question so many things. It made me realise the extent to which gender is just an assumption for me. I don’t think about it, I don’t question it, and to get this window of insight into the experience of someone who doesn’t have that luxury felt like an extraordinary thing.
All in all I’m glad I read it. As a novel I thought it was a bit all over the place – having read five of the six shortlisted titles I agree with the choices the judges made, I don’t think this matches up to any that are on the shortlist. But I am glad it was longlisted and that more people will read it as a result. I’m not sure there’s anything else that gives you the opportunity to live through someone else’s eyes in quite the same way that reading does. It’s one of the things I love most about it. Books like this don't come along every day, and we should read them when they do.
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Further reading: Conundrum is Jan Morris's memoir of transitioning from James Morris into Jan, the woman she always knew herself to be. It was one of the first autobiographies to discuss a personal gender reassignment. We read it for Laura's book club, but didn't manage to pod on it. It's always nice to have an excuse to read Virginia Woolf's Orlando – 'In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female', she wrote. Off at a tangent is The House of Impossible Beauties, Joseph Cassara's novel of drag queens and drag balls in 1980s New York. Laura and her book club had reservations, but I loved it. We talked about it on episode 24, alongside Less by Andrew Sean Greer, a novel than in no way relates to any of the above but If you haven't read it know that it is a total delight.