David Fickling is a publisher with a knack for spotting talented voices for the YA market, and his most recent discovery is actor turned writer Lisa Williamson. Her debut novel, The Art of Being Normal, deserves to attract attention not only for its sensitive portrayal of life as a transgender teenager but for the author’s aptitude for crafting vivid, engaging and convincing characters who keep you rooting for them through the many testing obstacles she puts in their way. Williamson worked for a time in a specialist NHS department dedicated to young people struggling with gender identity; her efforts to get inside the skin of her transgender protagonist are impressive and affecting.
The novel opens with 14-year-old David Piper recollecting how, at the age of eight, he was asked to write about what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I want to be a girl,” he wrote.
With the exception of best friends Zoe and Felix, David’s fellow pupils display a predictable lack of understanding. The popular kids, in particular, show no compassion. They nickname him Freak Show. David has loving middle-class parents who suspect that all is not well with their son. Picturing their disappointment and distress, David cannot bring himself to confide in them.
It is David’s isolation and quiet desperation that Williamson captures so well. Biology is sabotaging his longing to be petite and feminine. Time is against him as a rising tide of testosterone elongates his skinny frame, lengthens his penis, makes his pale, blue-veined feet ugly and huge (“Kate Winslet is a size nine” offers his friend Felix encouragingly). David measures himself obsessively, is dismayed at the thought of stubble and covets his mother’s curves. During those rare moments when he is left alone in the house, he dresses up as a girl before wiping away the makeup and feeling like a stranger in his own body once more. While his friends are all making out, or so he imagines, David reflects that he has never had a girl- or boyfriend, never kissed, never even held hands.
Then Leo Denton is transferred to David’s school. Leo comes from a challenging background where money is tight and emotional support in short supply. He is haunted by his father’s early abandonment of him, and neglected by a mother whom he increasingly resents. Preferring to keep himself to himself, and happy to hide behind a reputation as the tough kid you don’t want to mess with, Leo rejects an attempt by David to be friendly. However, when David finds himself the butt of a bully’s joke, it is Leo who comes to his rescue.
David and Leo’s increasingly interlocking stories are told in the present tense, in alternating first-person narratives. Williamson has a great ear for dialogue and the technique works well, though it might have worked even better if the teen voices were a little easier to distinguish. The novel powers along to a feelgood ending that should please all but the most unsentimental reader. Teen fictions that explores transgender issues are thin on the ground. Williamson’s memorable and thought‑provoking depiction of a girl trapped in a teenage boy’s body deserves to make its mark.
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