When you read John Boyne’s books, it is easy to forget that he first made his name writing for young readers. Even his most famous book, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, was written for this demographic and only taken seriously when adults realised what a wonderful piece of writing it was. It is unlikely that My Brother’s Name Is Jessica will have the same impact, though it is also beautifully written.
The first-person narrator is Sam and we meet him first as an infant, then as a seven-year old, a 10-year old and finally as a young teenager. His hero is his older brother Jason who fills the roles in his life that his politician parents might be expected to take on. Mum is Britain’s Secretary of State with ambition to
become Prime Minister; her chief-of-staff and minder is her husband. Neither have much time to take any serious interest in what their sons are going through.
At the age of 17, Jason announces to his family that he regards himself as a girl. “I don’t think I’m your brother,” he tells Sam. “I think I’m your sister.” The story now takes the expected route through denial by his parents and even more by Sam, and merciless bullying of both boys at school.
In an attempt to make Jason change his mind, Sam cuts off his ponytail while he is asleep. The older boy is convinced that this was done by one of his parents and leaves home to live with his aunt Rose, an old hippy who accepts him and calls him Jessica. Soon after this, without doing much to make it happen, Sam finds that he has a girlfriend, a relationship that unwittingly provides the opportunity for another politician to challenge Mum for the Prime Ministership.
Though the ending is not entirely satisfactory, the story is a delight, a masterclass in creating believable situations for young people, especially those going through internal conflict. In an afterword, the author tells us that he was 20 before he could tell everyone he was gay. “And life was a million times better when I did because people will often surprise you with just how kind and supportive they can be.”
He admits, however, that for a young boy or girl to come out and say they are transgender goes to a higher level of difficulty. The reaction of parents and other siblings and school friends is usually to deny the assertion and claim that the person will get over it and that it can be overcome by some medical procedure. All of these situations and some more are dealt with in this book.
But, setting aside the seriousness of the topic, this is a marvelously funny book, full of sparkling dialogue. At one stage, Sam insists that since Jason has a willie, he must be a boy. “Sam,” shouted Mum, “no willies at the breakfast table.” “Oh, ok,” I said, “So when can we talk about them?” “We can’t” said Mum. “Why not?” ”Because they’re disgusting.” ”Ah,” said Dad quietly. “Actually that explains a lot.”
This is a book that will be loved by the young readers for whom it is written. But it should be read by adults also.
In a note at the end of this quite faultless novel, the author tells us that she is a sixth-generation descendant of a Clancy family, who were sponsored emigrants to Australia from Co Clare in the years just before the Great Famine. They settled in the Orange region of NSW, where their successors are still to be found. So it is no surprise that she names the central characters in her book Clancy and has them originally settling in that rich farming region of Australia.
She does, of course, change things for the sake of her story. For one thing, she starts her story near KIllaloe in 1851, when it could be assumed that any who had lived through the Famine years were either fortunate or had strong survival skills. In the case of the Clancy family, there was little good fortune, and it may be assumed that their assisted passage was paid by a landlord happy to have them off his hands.
That part of the story is certainly convincing as is the oppression and hardship which tenants would have to endure in order to survive, all of which is credibly covered in the story. The feel of staying close to history is sensed again in the second half of the book when the action moves to the Ballarat goldfields and the agitation that would in a short time lead to democracy in Victoria at a time when it was rare anywhere else in the world.
The other element of the story is based around Eve Richards, a young servant woman in a prosperous family in England who is abused by the son and heir and eventually transported to Australia for stealing an apple. Eve is a strong woman, but subject to the kind of sometimes subtle, often naked cruelties of the age. That she survives may be regarded as a contrived set of circumstances, but by the time that happens, the reader is engrossed in her troubles and quite delighted that, polished English accent notwithstanding, she is rescued by one of the Irish Clancy clan.
The first portion of the story is set in Killaloe and Liverpool, but the action seems more authentic after it moves to Sydney and Parramatta, Orange and finally to Ballan, Ballarat and Warrnambool in Victoria.
It is a reminder that even as late as the second half of the 19th Century, there was a widespread regime of repression and cruelty in early Australia.
The author coaxes the reader into sympathy with her main characters and has few agreeable ones on the official side of Irish or
colonial society, either as navy, military, police
or civilian. A reader may be surprised at how thoroughly absorbed he/she becomes in the fortunes of the characters, as much at an emotional level – keep some tissues to hand – as at a practical or material one.
This is writing of the highest quality, keeping the reader involved from the first.