John Boyne’s 2019 young adult novel My Brother’s Name is Jessica is at first glance eye-catching in rainbow printed cover with white raised lettering. It is an optimistic cover, yet in true John Boyne style, the content is substantial and addresses issues of remarkable importance. The Waver family in England follow the political journey of Secretary of State, Deborah Waver as she climbs the ‘greasy pole’ towards the role of Prime Minister. Her husband, in his role as her private secretary plans her daily moves and media presence, their lives positioned strategically like pawns on a chess board. Both parents have each aspect of their life compartmentalised and planned that when their children begin to flounder, they fail to see.
Fourteen year-old Sam Waver is mild, quiet, swallowed up by the louder vultures of the classroom. His older brother Jason is popular, attractive with a blaze of self-confidence, exuberant where Sam is meek. His strength lends a familiarity to each day for Sam, his easy confidence lends a supporting stronghold, shaping Sam as he grows. Those supporting walls fall abruptly when Jason says the words “I don’t think I’m your brother at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m your sister”. The once structured life led by the Wavers collapses publicly as Jason confesses his feeling of having been born into the wrong body. The fact that he was born male contrasts painfully with his certainty that he is female. Jason grows his hair, his first deliberate act at somehow trying to be that which he so desperately craves to be. Tension at home rises and the support which Jason needs is not there, he is a teenager facing an enormous identity crisis and his family cannot support him. The lack of support stems from a lack of awareness, of knowledge and a strong sense of denial. Sam suffers tremendously, the school vultures close in around him and make him suffer for what he sees as the deliberate and selfish decisions of his brother. Every single person in the Waver family suffers because it is easier to avoid change sometimes, it is easier to pretend that everything is ok and therefore circumstances can remain unchanged.
John Boyne bravely addressed the issue of education in society regarding transgender teenagers. We are all expected to be knowledgeable on all areas of identity, which is why this book was released to such public criticism this year. Yet the reality is that we don’t know, we are all learning and trying so hard to avoid upsetting anyone when the reality of changing identities and genders is still so new in our society, or at least new in the sense that we are only finally beginning to talk about it. This book will be a catalyst for conversations in homes, it will encourage parents to learn about the struggles their child is battling, it will encourage transgender teenagers and people of all ages to allow society a little time to process change while having faith that this change is good and welcomed.
Unfortunately, the overall impact of the novel on me was diluted and a little disappointing. None of the characters, with the exception of Sam were developed enough and even Sam had the potential to be a little irritating. The plot moved very fast and the enormity of the narrative was not delivered due to this speed. I felt as though John Boyne was writing to deliver a learning curve to readers, while not being particularly invested in his novel itself. There was a forced engagement between characters, no charisma or connection existed, and the entire plot was obvious and lacking in depth. The subject matter highlights the changing face of Ireland and this will hopefully inspire other writers to do the same but in this case, I was underwhelmed by the bland delivery.
(c) Dymphna Nugent
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