First off, let me put one thing out there before anything else — I went into reading this book with the best intentions and only the fullest sympathy for John Boyne as an author. I knew about the controversy that had erupted on twitter and social media (as it does), and I picked up our shop’s ARC of the book fully intending to focus on what Boyne got right.
Alas, it didn’t turn out to be a lot.
Putting aside the book’s representation of trans issues for a moment (yes, we will get to it), even just in terms of Jessica as a story, there is very little that I found I could enjoy. Pretty much all of the characters are awful, and I even found it difficult to root for Jessica, for reasons that we’ll get to in a minute.
As for the others, Sam, our narrator, is a thirteen-year-old boy who spends most of the novel either blaming Jessica for the way his classmates bully him, or worried that he might “catch” being transgender. Their parents are a conservative MP and her secretary, both of whom spend most of the novel being racist, bigoted, or cuthroatedly ambitious, all while openly claiming they’re none of those things. There are very few moments when they are shown to be at all sympathetic to their kids. Most of these are shoehorned in, either by Sam or Jessica proclaiming how “good” or “supportive” their parents are (without those traits ever being demonstrated), or by Mom and Dad Waver admitting, as if it were a great confession, that their jobs and feelings might not be the most important thing after all, given the bigger picture. Of course, they then return to ignoring Sam and lying about Jessica in the next scene.
On the one hand, I understand Boyne’s urge to portray the difficulty that many people have in learning to accept and understand trans folk. That difficulty and that gap in understanding experience is very real, and any honest portrayal of a trans character in modern society would have to address it in some way.
On the other hand, at one point, Dad Waver seriously asks a psychotherapist if electroshock therapy is “something that still goes on” and might “get results.” This is played, in the text, as if the author is making an inside joke.
Oh but wait.
It gets worse.
Because it seems the only three people who can understand Jessica’s struggle at all are her psychotherapist — whose only defining feature is that he looks like a guy in a band; her football coach — who could care less about gender, so long as the team keeps winning; and Aunt Rose. And of course, Aunt Rose is a stereotypical hippie liberal who dresses up in trash bags and takes in homeless people off the street, marries them, then divorces them, you know, the way we hippie left-wing bleeding hearts do.
But perhaps the most frustrating and damning aspect in all of this is the portrayal of Jessica herself — or Jason, as she is referred to as throughout the novel, up until the very last chapter of the book. In Sam’s eyes, Jessica is always “my brother Jason.” He’s “the best brother” and it’s clear that Sam idolizes him. But Sam is not sympathetic to Jessica’s struggles. The only glimpses we get of Jessica’s take on all of this are pithy, generic quotes that seem designed to encapsulate the “trans struggle” (“I’ve always felt this way.” “Just because I feel that I’m a girl doesn’t mean I have to like everything that girls like…” “Don’t you realize that my gender has absolutely nothing to do with what’s going on in my pants?”), and a lot of crying. We see none of her interior world, none of her struggle, and it’s not her strength or her perseverance that wins out by the end of the book.
Which brings me to the most important point in all of this. The central conflict of the book isn’t centered around Jessica’s journey, or her character development. It’s not about her winning people over to accept who she is, or her coming out better or stronger. In fact, it’s Jessica herself, her being transgender, her acceptance of her own identity, that is set up as the antagonist, the conflict, the obstacle for Sam and his entire family to overcome. It’s only when Jessica offers to give up her identity and live her life as a lie for her family that the plot is resolved (even if that resolution does, eventually, involve her family supporting her transition).
In short, this book is not Jessica’s. It doesn’t belong to her. It’s about everyone else but her. And when you look at it like that, it’s not hard to see why the trans community has refused to embrace it as theirs.
After all, it’s hard enough being the Other in everyone else’s books, never mind those that are supposed to be yours.