Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Art of Being Normal, by Lisa Williamson

The Art of Being Normal
This is a pretty unusual novel about two very different boys and their most closely guarded secrets. David Piper is just starting year 10 and dreading it. Every day he gets taller, his feet get bigger and his stubble threatens to break through at last- what would be exciting for most boys fills David with dread. All he has ever wanted is to be a girl, and girls don’t have beards and size 9 feet.  

Trapped in the wrong body, David is awkward and shy- he and his only two friends Essie and Felix have formed a trio of misfits, collectively known as the mutant, the geek and the freak. Mercilessly bullied by year 10’s most popular boy, David finds it easier to withdraw than defend himself, hoping there will be a new target tomorrow.

Then there’s Leo, a new boy starting in year 11 after a mysterious transfer from the roughest school in the city. The rumour mill has him maiming a teacher with a hacksaw and getting expelled, but David has his doubts about the likelihood of such an affair. Surly and hostile, Leo wants nothing more than to be invisible; to get as many GCSEs as possible and start a new life somewhere far away.   

In some ways this is quite a relatable story of feeling different, a sore thumb within a sea of ordinary, regular thumbs. I think many readers will relate to the idea of feeling isolated and abnormal - even if it is not for the same reasons as Leo or David. I really liked the two protagonists and I think the dual narration, with a font for each speaker worked really well. It was lovely to see their relationship growing and their trust deepening from both perspectives, and all the doubt and fear that came with entrusting secrets to another.

I liked David as a character; he was sweet and nerdishly sensible and funny, and his loneliness makes the reader sympathise massively with him. I can’t even imagine how confusing and traumatic it must be to see a stranger’s face in the mirror every day instead of the person that really exists underneath. However, I felt that Leo was definitely the most three dimensional character in the book. Maybe it was because his secret stayed under wraps for so long, maybe it was the mysterious circumstances of his departure, his jumpiness, his unresolved anger issues and his ‘problem’ family, but for me Leo was the more engaging of the narrators. He seemed much more troubled, more desperate and so much more destructive than the quietly agonising David and the reader feels every horrible blow dealt to him.

This novel breaches some fairly virgin territory in the Young Adult arena by shining a light on the topic of transgenderism in teens. Though I can obviously claim no expertise, I thought Williamson handled the subject sensitively and with candour; pointing out that David is not gay, he’s a straight girl in his head and heart. Novels like this are the very reason that people read- in order to experience life through other eyes. Williamson has definitely managed to offer a fresh and vital perspective, and done it well- If just one kid has read this book and felt less alone, or has thought twice about discriminating against LGBT peers, it’s a win.  Some readers will have never even considered gender dysphoria as even existing at all, much less considered how tough it must be to experience.

All in all, this was a really enjoyable and emotional read that really reinforces the importance of walking a mile in a person's shoes before judging them. It feels like an important book, though long overdue. The writing is nothing out of the ordinary, but the characters are memorable and relatable and the reader cannot help but root for them and hope they overcome the obstacles and unfairness that seems so sadly inevitable. On an additional note, I did do a little internal “Wooo!” when Newstead Abbey got a shout out because I live like 4 miles from it! On an additional additional note, David, some girls do have size 9 feet. Or 10 in my case.

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