Wednesday 23 June 2021

Gender Euphoria, edited by Laura Kate Dale

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Unbound for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This groundbreaking anthology brings together the experiences of non-binary, agender, gender fluid, and intersex writers, focussing on gender euphoria rather than the dysphoria that usually gets the most column inches. The result is a moving, enlightening book that will give you a real insight into the lives of non-cisgender people and the experiences that give them the greatest sense of gender euphoria.

The writers are all fairly young but are from all walks of life with very individual stories to tell. The editor, Laura Kate Dale, contributes a number of essays on her experiences as a pansexual trans woman. The scenarios are different but there’s a connecting theme of joy when the writers learn to love themselves with or without the approval of people around them. Many find freedom in letting go of overtly trying to hide signs of their birth assigned gender - tales of obsessively plucking all facial hair daily, feeling the need to constantly wear feminised clothes regardless of whether they fit the mood or not, give an insight in the constant practical issues that can cause a lot of stress and feelings of restriction. A lot of this arises more from a desire for others to correctly gender them rather than necessarily needing it for their own sense of identity. The reader feels the relief and freedom of reaching a point where going out with a bit of facial hair showing is no longer seen as an insurmountable barrier, and the euphoria that comes with being correctly gendered by others. 

One essay talks of the challenges of being pregnant and breastfeeding, activities that are heavily gendered by society, as a non-binary person. Another speaks of their fear as a trans man getting married that they’d be referred to as a wife during the ceremony, and the joy that came with a celebrant that took the time to understand their concerns and helped make the day a euphoric one.

This is a book that doesn’t shy away from the challenges of those who battle not only their own insecurities but lack of understanding from society more broadly. They write with great honesty about their experiences and sense of isolation, but also of acceptance and finding safe spaces where they’re finally able to feel themselves without fear. It’s a book that will make you smile and make you cry, but most importantly, you’ll close the book with a much greater understanding of the lived experiences of the writers and the little things we can all do to make the world a happier, more accepting place.

Sunday 13 June 2021

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

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Boyne’s powerful novel takes us on a journey through Ireland from 1945 to 2015 in seven year increments. The book opens with sixteen year old Catherine Goggin being publicly shamed in church for having fallen pregnant out of wedlock. She’s forced to leave her hometown to fend for herself in Dublin while the man responsible experiences no repercussions. Our narrator, Catherine’s baby, is born in the midst of a violent homophobic attack that will sadly be mirrored later in his life. The rest of the book follows Cyril through life, struggling with his sexuality and the unbending, restrictive morals of a country firmly in the grasp of the Catholic Church. We will follow him to Amsterdam and New York, seeing shifting attitudes in other countries while Ireland stubbornly refuses to ease the harsh views and laws that cause misery to many.

The characters are brilliantly drawn. Cyril's adoptive parents, Maude and Charles Avery,  seemingly have no interest in raising a child and remind him constantly that he isn’t ‘a real Avery’. He is fascinated by their relationship growing up, ‘Two people who could not have been more ill-suited to each other’s company had somehow managed to find each other and sustain something resembling a relationship while apparently feeling no interest or affection for the other whatsoever.’ It is hardly surprising then that they don’t treat the latest addition to their family with much more tenderness. Charles shows disregard for his wife, having affairs and never bothering to read the books she writes. Maude has a novel approach to writing, not reading herself, and entirely against being widely read, she is furious when Charles’ run-in with the law push her books up the bestseller lists. 

Catherine appears briefly in many sections throughout, but fleetingly and tantalisingly close to her son without realising it. She proves herself to be strong-willed and loyal, successfully carving out a career for herself in the tea-room of the Dáil Éireann where she was fortunate to meet a woman willing to give her a job while heavily pregnant. There are moments where her sadness over her lost son begins to emerge only for the moment to pass before it can develop into a conversation that might reveal their true identities.

Cyril himself is shy and lacking in confidence as a child and young man. He meets Julian at the age of seven and is blown away by his confidence and sexual knowledge. From the day they first meet, Cyril is drawn to him, his feelings developing over the years to encompass lust and unrequited love. They remain friends for many years but Cyril always keeps his feelings and sexuality to himself, until they come to a dramatic climax that will change their relationship forever.

There’s so much in this novel, but the overarching focus is the changing attitudes to homosexuality and the terrible injustices that law and Church impose. For a long time Cyril believes his feelings for Julian are just a phase, but he is eventually forced to admit that they’re not. He goes to a doctor for help but is told he can’t be a homosexual because there aren’t any in Ireland, before subjecting him to a cruel treatment designed to create negative associations with erotic thoughts of men. Cyril considers killing himself on a number of occasions, denied the opportunity for loving sexual interactions. He has sex with hundreds of men, rarely knowing their real name, and always with a sense of urgency and a fear of being discovered. The idea of taking a man home with him, of having sex in a bed, and spending the night together feels an impossible dream.

By 1980, with his life in Ireland in tatters, we find Cyril living in Amsterdam where he finds a stable partner in a city where they can walk along holding hands without fear of what will happen to them. Jump forward to the late 1980s and New York, where the Aids epidemic is taking hold and shifting attitudes toward fear and hostility. The President refuses to acknowledge what’s happening and Cyril and his friends are removed from a restaurant for discussing the disease. It is a sad step backward, with him noticing that even friends seem uncomfortable with displays of affection between him and Bastiaan. In his role as a volunteer at the hospital we are witness to the isolated deaths of those shunned by family or too afraid to tell them what they’re suffering. The book ends on a slightly more positive note with the successful referendum on legalising same-sex marriage. The final sections are nonetheless heart-wrenching as Cyril nears the end of his life, reflecting on those he’s loved and lost, and repairing relationships at home.

This is a book that deals with some heavy issues and offers far more depth than can ever be conveyed in a short review. Despite the themes and suffering within, there’s also a lot of humour, sometimes revealing a deeper reflection but in a way that will put a smile on your face. This is a book that will keep you up at night reading ‘just one more chapter’ and stay with you for a long time after turning the final page.

Tuesday 1 June 2021

Self Contained: Scenes From A Single Life, Emma John

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Octopus Publishing for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

In this brutally honest memoir Emma John explores the positives and negatives of living a single life and the challenges of maintaining friendships as people throw themselves into their growing families. It is a meditation on independence and a challenge to the long accepted view that we aren’t complete until we find our soulmate. She does not hold back on her sometimes less complementary feelings, making this a book that I think everyone can relate to in one way or another.

Her relationship with her sister is central, their great affection for each other apparent at every turn, yet she admits to worrying about being left behind, of losing her place as the one her sister would always turn to. The news of an imminent addition to the family also throws her into a spin. She admits to these struggles, but doesn’t run away from the situations, resulting in a much happier outcome than she’d imagined. John raises an interesting idea, that when friends and family get married or have children, her life and role in theirs change without her consent. This can lead to feelings of helplessness and lack of control. She logically understands the shifts but struggles to resist feelings of rejection, of being pushed further out of the circle of loved ones.

Despite these feelings she also admits her own reluctance to engage with some aspects of her friends' lives. She’s never, for example, seen the fascination of babies and doesn’t hide this from the new parents she knows. In her desire for friendships to stay the same she inadvertently puts up barriers. She’s frequently self-deprecating and her honesty is raw, but she seems not to notice her devotion to her friends, stepping up when they’re in need and doing what she can to look after them.

There’s a definite feeling that her life lacks the markers of progress that those around her are hitting and this causes a feeling of stagnation. She tries throwing herself into work but hates knowing when everyone goes home they’re no longer thinking of her, believes that she isn’t the first person anyone would turn to. It’s when she begins to shift her focus from external forms of validation, stops thinking of herself as waiting for her future to begin and follows what makes her happy in the here and now, that she seems to really find her feet. The closing chapters touch on her experience of lockdown and the pandemic more generally, the absence of loneliness and the realisation that she has a solid support network who rely on her too.

This is a brilliant, thought-provoking book that will make you consider the way value is perceived in a life. It is about single life and how this interacts with shifting family dynamics, friendships that stand the test of time, and ultimately learning to accept yourself, setting your own priorities, and living for the present.