The trouble, when there is a lot of pre-publication excitement surrounding a novel, particularly an issue-driven YA/crossover novel such as The Art Of Being Normal, is that the actual reading can leave you wondering quite what all the fuss is about.
For a long period in the middle third of this dual-narrative story I felt that this was going to be my abiding impression. But the book certainly gathers power towards the end – sufficiently so for me to at least see why there has been such support for the book.
The cover (by Alice Todd) is quite brilliant. It tells us at once that this is the story about a girl struggling to liberate herself from having been born in a masculine body. In that sense we are primed to see David as the main character of the book and the focal point for the transgender theme.
It is initially a surprise therefore when Leo, the other narrator and a new arrival at the school, receives equal if not more favourable narrative attention. Eventually a significant twist is revealed which explains this equal weighting, but not before the tenor of the novel has become well-nigh indistinguishable from any YA book about secondary school life in which a loner is bullied for being different, and wild rumours are spread concerning a new student.
Williamson’s writing was rather too flat and even-toned to engage me emotionally, but I have to accept that other readers have been emotionally engaged by the characters in ways that I was not. Even in the comparatively powerful climax to the book her writing is very reliant on heavy hints from dialogue to convey the tenor of a situation. “I feel like I’m in an incredibly low-rent music video,” one character says, as a way of telling the reader how to receive the scene. Elsewhere, and again in this best section of the book, the narrating character tells us twice that the scene is “surreal’. Great writing conveys these ambiences without them having to be spelt out in this way.
Readers of my reviews will know that I always tend to have a problem with dual narrative novels. I find my engagement is split and dissipated. David’s family and home life are more successfully rendered than Leo’s. There is a class and background distinction between the families which is signalled with broadbrush cliches: Leo’s mum goes to Bingo and keeps housekeeping money in a tin.
As for the transgender theme and predicament, everything pans out quite wonderfully in the end. In fact, if the book is ever made into a film I would wager that the screenwriter will need to wheedle in a good amount of edginess to counter the sugary-sweet tone of the Christmastime climax.
A YA Transparent, the quite brilliant black-humoured TV film created by Jill Solloway, this is not.