By Sara Aslagson-Sahar
Having a big brother who is transgender, when I saw the summary of this book I was highly interested in how Lisa Williamson’s debut novel, The Art of Being Normal, would approach such a hot topic that is only recently beginning to become a mainstream issue.
As I was reading through I found myself hooked on the characters. David, who has known since he was little that he is a girl, but isn’t quite sure how to tell his parents. His caring best friends Essie and Felix who know who David really is, but recently entered a relationship with one another leaving David feeling left behind. Leo, the misunderstood kid from the wrong side of the tracks, with an unclear background. Alicia, the beautiful and understanding girl, who can sing brilliantly. This story mainly focuses on the relationship between David and Leo, explaining that in life’s journey, it really is okay to share your secrets and your true self with someone else.
Leo just transferred to Eden Park High School and decided that he was just going to do his own thing and ignore the rumours and school around him, determined to graduate and go on to a school out of the city. Leo is pretty successful in his plan, but in English, Alicia starts talking to him. Leo does his best not to care about her. One day, David is in the lunch line and another student begins picking on him. Again. But this time, it gets physical. When Leo steps in to help David by punching the student in the face, they all end up in detention. Gradually, David gets Leo to interact with him through drawings and even getting help on his “maths” homework. Slowly, their bond begins to grow.
Set present day in England, the culture is very relatable and definitely English. It is clear that Williamson did her research and actually communicated with 14-16 year olds to find out the culture surrounding secondary school. One thing that contributed greatly to Williamson’s success with this novel, and was also her inspiration, was her work as a temp at The Gender Identity Development Service. The Gender Identity Development Service is a specialist National Health Service (NHS) service for young people struggling with their gender identity.
Overall, as a reader, this book grabbed me and didn’t let me go. When I was low-key trying not to cry happy tears as I read the last page, I could not believe that my journey with the characters was over, but I knew they would go on with their lives without me. I seriously feel like I could turn a corner and run into Leo and ask him about his family, not that he would answer me—a complete stranger—or go out and see David. It makes me want to wander around England looking for them, but also helps me stop and reflect that while these exact characters do not exist in the real world, there are people whose stories are very similar and very real.
There is no need for anyone who is worried about the fact that the book is set in England and uses British-English terminology. When Williamson references chips and you expect it to be a bag of potato chips, and what she means is french fries, the lack of knowledge and terminology will not hinder your reading at all. It is good to know that all of the English secondary schools require their students to wear uniforms and ties. The only “negative” thing I really have to say, is I’m not sure how realistic their sneaking into a pub is, but hey I did not grow up in England and I imagine in a strange city, that could potentially happen. Even if it wouldn’t, Williamson made me believe it did.
Williamson’s first person writing for Leo and David is excellent. A reader can understand which character is which by more than the changing font. Her story reveals subtlety and takes the reader on a story line in such a way that I, an avid reader, did not see one of the big reveals coming. The story does not fall into the traps and character plots it could have, instead the story takes a unique and refreshing view. A view that had me devouring the ending of the book even faster than I did the first half.
If you are interested in reading this book, which I highly recommend you do, you can hopefully check it out at your local library, or you can for sure buy it on Amazon, which is what I did. Also check out Lisa Williamson’s website if you are interested. She has more information about her, as well as a blog, and events you can go meet her at (if you are lucky enough to live or visit England at that time). If you are interested in reading my interview with her check it out here.
Also, if you or someone you know is struggling with their gender identity, or know and need some help with the next step, here are some websites you can check out to hopefully help out.
Trans Lifeline: http://www.translifeline.org/
Susan’s Place: https://www.susans.org/
Gender Spectrum: https://www.genderspectrum.org
The National Center for Transgender Equality: http://www.transequality.org
Out and Equal: http://www.outandequal.org