John Boyne has been on the receiving end of some serious backlash since he penned his Irish Times article about his support for trans rights but his rejection of the word ‘cis.’ For the record, I am a huge fan of Boyne’s work (his Ladder to the Sky was far and away the best book I read last year); I support trans rights; and I have no objection to being referred to as cis. Quite honestly, I am not sure why anybody would take umbrage with this; I believe our language should be as fair and inclusive as possible, and encompass everybody’s experiences of gender so we can eradicate inequalities between gender identities.
Books like Boyne’s My Brother’s Name is Jessica — targeted at young readers, whose perceptions and attitudes are still being shaped — are vital for their education and understanding. And mine, too. I am a cisgender, heterosexual male; there is an inherent privilege attached to this identity, which I hope will be rectified in my lifetime. But this means I will never know the trauma of feeling like I am not born in the right body. Through books — fiction and non-fiction — I hope to learn, understand, and empathise. So I believe novels dealing with the subject are obliged to both entertain and educate, which might be asking too much, but it’s what I demand.
On a surface level, I quite enjoyed My Brother’s Name Is Jessica. I raced through it, chortled in all the places the author hoped to induce a chuckle, and enjoyed seeing the world through young Sam Waver’s eyes as he struggled to comprehend his older brother’s transition from Jason — star footballer and one of the most popular kids in school — to Jessica. Sam just doesn’t get it: why does his brother want to change? Because no matter how often Jessica tries to articulate what it’s like to live in a body that feels wrong, it’s an entirely foreign concept to Sam. For his parents, too; comically awful, villainous people, and politicians to boot, with the top job in mind, and not happy about the potential political repercussions of their eldest son’s actions. In their minds, he is being viciously selfish.
Because the book is framed exclusively from the perspective of a cisgender boy, comfortable in his body and gender identity, readers never truly gain insight into what it’s like for Jessica. Which I suppose is fine; if the book is designed to showcase a family’s gradual developing compassion and empathy for their daughter, it succeeds, to a degree; but the potential emotion of this story is undercut by most of the cast’s portrayal as comical caricatures. There’s an undercurrent of slapstick, which makes My Brother’s Name is Jessica eminently readable, but lacking the emotional profundity I’ve come to expect from Boyne.
Format: Paperback / softback
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 16-Apr-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom