This is the tenth of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’ve now read and reviewed each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS. We did it, folks!
David Piper has a secret. His family and classmates think he’s a pretty weird teenage boy. What they don’t know – what he’s too afraid to tell them – is that he’s really a girl. David knows that he’s trans and what that means, but the next step is to explain it to his parents. As if adolescence and school weren’t hard enough! At least he has his friends. And there’s a new boy at Eden Park called Leo Denton. David is fascinated by Leo, but he can’t figure out why. Maybe it’s that Leo has secrets of his own.
The Art of Being Normal is one of the most important YA novels of the past few years, a necessary addition to the LGBT literature canon, and a fantastic teen contemporary to boot. It’s explicitly concerned with gender identity and trans issues, but the characters are so warmly written there is no danger of the story becoming exploitative. There has been a call recently for more stories about marginalised people that are written by marginalised people. Trans people remain under- and misrepresented in the media, and lived experience goes a long way towards creating accurate representation. That said, at one of the many, many diversity panels I’ve attended since I started going to book events, someone pointed out that “trans people shouldn’t have to write all the trans books.” Lisa Williamson is writing from a well-researched and genuinely felt place, and The Art of Being Normal comes endorsed by many real life trans people. Hopefully this book will herald a new wave of slice-of-trans-life stories, in which characters get to live their lives without their gender being sensationalised. David is desperately lonely until he meets Leo, who understands what he’s going through. For a generation of teens, this book could be a reminder that they are not alone.
So it’s important, but is it good? To my shame, I had forgotten how good it really is until I reread it for the purposes of this review. David and Leo are compelling, sympathetic heroes, even if Leo’s a bit grumpy sometimes. Williamson does a skilful job of bringing out the two narrators’ different voices, and also their different experiences of class. Leo’s embarrassment about the council estate where he lives is subtly done. The little details are so effective; I’m always particularly struck by Leo’s little sister having had salt and vinegar crisps for breakfast. Both of their families are, like all families, a complex mess of love and resentment. Leo’s mum, for all her failings, is unswerving in her support for her son. It’s refreshing to see a trans teen in conflict with his parents for reasons other than his trans status. Likewise, Leo’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his dad is wrenching and realistic.
The family relationships are one of the book’s strengths for me, but teenagers do sometimes leave the house. (Or at least, these teens do. I’m not sure I did.) The party scenes are delightful: atmospheric, chaotic, full of friendships and flirting. The Christmas ball especially is so visual I need to see The Art of Being Normal: the TV special now. And of course, the “road trip” is the high point of the novel. Secrets, adventure, karaoke, friendship, heartbreak, bingo, and underage drinking – what more could you possibly want from a YA contemporary, or indeed any kind of novel?
The Art of Being Normal shows that normality is a moving target. We shouldn’t try to achieve someone else’s idea of “normal” – that’s no way to be happy, and no one’s normal is the same. Perhaps the only way to be normal is to find people who are willing to expand their definition of normal to include yours. Lisa Williamson’s novel might help a lot of people establish a new normal through her beautifully written characters, and that’s an achievement worth celebrating.