The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

Lisa Williamson’s debut novel for the young adult market certainly hasn’t slipped quietly into the world. Not only has it already sold in shed-loads, it is also still winning almost as many awards as readers hearts. In truth it’s got it faults (which first novels don’t? ) but the subject matter is so compelling and urgent that the stylistic and structural blips barely register.

Content and book design come as a whole package with this publication. No-one will pick this up, look at Alice Todd’s jacket art and be left in much doubt what we’re dealing with here – gender identity.  David Piper has spent his short life being an outsider: he’s bullied at school, his parents think he’s probably gay and he has only two friends in the world who know the truth about him – he’s convinced he should have been born a girl.

What David doesn’t know is that his fate will be bound up with someone he hasn’t even met when the book opens. Leo Denton, transferred to David’s school for reasons that only gradually emerge, comes from the wrong side of the tracks and has a chaotic family background that contrasts sharply with David’s decent middle class world. He also has his own explosive secret.

A young adult book that puts the drama of transgender identity right at its heart has to be a welcome, and brave, development. However, it wouldn’t work if its only merit was its bravery – the book also has to work as a compelling narrative. And this is the part Williamson pulls off so well. The unfolding of David and Leo’s story is emotionally involving and there is just enough tension and jeopardy to keep you turning the page. Thankfully its also not just a book about gender identity but one which tackles notions of social class, family and the nature of parenthood in a way that is skilfully integrated.

I personally find the rather lazy idea that discrimination and prejudice is something ring-fenced within the older generation intensely irritating. Williamson very usefully challenges the reputation for tolerance of the young people in this book – they are often cruel, deliberately confrontational, bigoted and without insight. The fact that people like David and Leo have to run the gauntlet of hate their peers feel free to express without thought for the consequences is something that really highlights the day to day problems anyone labeled ‘not normal’ has to put up with.

Inevitably, this book will find its way onto school reading lists and will be used to help generate discussions about ‘diversity’ or ‘identity’ and there’s nothing wrong with that. I hope, however, that people – young and old- choose to read this book not because it’s worthy but because it speaks to us as human beings.

Terry Potter

March 2016

(This review was first published on www.letterpressproject.co.uk in March 2016)

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