Posted in John Boyne, My Brother's Name Is Jessica

My Brother’s Name Is Jessica – John Boyne – A Discussion

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I’ve toyed and agonised over this for a few weeks. I wasn’t sure whether or not to review it, how I would go about reviewing it if I chose to, how would I write this without potentially offending someone etc. I had made up my mind not to, until I commented on a post about it on another blog, and realised that I actually have quite a bit to say about this book. And so, I’ve decided that, while I’m not going to actually review the book per say, I am going to do a post discussing it.

Firstly, I am aware that I am NOT the target audience for this book. John Boyne wrote this as a children’s book, but, having read previous books of his for children, particularly The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, I found them to be so well written that they almost transcended the age they were written for, and were appealing to adults too. Also, there was so much controversy surrounding this book even before it was released, that when I saw it, I had to pick it up and try it.

I do so wish I could say that I loved it, and there were a few things (very few) that I liked, but overall, I just found it to be underwhelming, disappointing, and frankly, problematic.

Firstly, the main character, Sam, is poorly written and unlikable. If his age hadn’t been stated, I would have guessed his age to be around nine, maybe ten. He’s written, to me, like a young child. He constantly refers to the Jason / Jessica character as ‘my brother, Jason’, which I don’t think an older child would do. The language he uses makes him seem a lot younger, almost as if Boyne doesn’t know how older children speak. He continues to reference Jason / Jessica in this way, even after the family has been told that Jessica is actually a girl, and wishes to be acknowledged as such. He makes no effort to have a serious discussion about Jessica’s transition, instead he is only concerned with asking if Jessica will continue to play football, and what will happen to her ‘willy’ – again, a very childlike reaction. But Sam is actually fourteen. Fourteen. A teenager, who, in my opinion, would have a much more mature reaction. Shock, yes, confusion also, but a fourteen year old has for more capacity for comprehension, and discussion, and I feel they would deal with this whole situation differently. I feel Sam was unneccesarily infantalised, and it is to the detriment of the novel.

Jessica’s family is also a problem to me – her parents especially. While I am aware that, unfortunately, transgender people do not always have a supportive family, or an accepting one, I didn’t like the way this was portrayed in the book. The main problem Jessica’s parents seemed to have was the ‘scandal’ the news would bring, at a time when her mother was in the running for Prime Minister. Both parents are in the political public eye and everything is about how they ‘look’. While obviously every book needs a conflict, and in this book it was always going to be the reaction Jessica’s family had to her announcement, I think it would have been just as, if not more, effective had they just been a normal, everyday family, who didn’t try to push the issue under the rug because of what their public would think, but who dealt with the confusion and hardship that Jessica, and they themselves, were going through, together. This is a book written for children, to bring the topic of being transgender to them, and honestly, I feel like the reaction of Jessica’s family could be damaging, and potentially off-putting to any child who felt the same was as Jessica did in the book.

I really wish we had more of Jessica’s perspective in this book. Even if it had chapters alternating between Sam and Jessica, to give us an insight into both sides of the story. Jessica’s transition, to me, felt over-shadowed by how everyone else felt about the transition. I know Boyne said that he spoke with transgender people while writing this novel, but I feel that he could have gotten more insight, or maybe some input, into giving a deeper look into just how Jessica was feeling, coming to the realisation that she didn’t feel at home in her own body, and maybe spoken about the fear that I’m sure she would have felt when she finally decided to tell her family. It is touched on slightly in the book, but all through Sam’s point of view. I feel it would have been a stronger book with Jessica’s viewpoint too.

The book’s only saving grace was the character of Aunt Rose, who welcomed and fully accepted Jessica without question, and who helped Sam to understand what was going on. She was an example of how people should be when it comes to helping transgender family members, accepting, and loving, and supportive. A refuge when it’s needed. I’m so glad Boyne created this character.

Honestly though, this whole book feels rushed to me. It’s almost as though it was written because it’s so relevant to current times, and so was bound to draw attention. While I do think it was written with the best of intentions, in my opinion, it just doesn’t hit the mark. It has many problems, and I don’t think it’s educational in regards transgender people and what they go through.

However, I do think any work that brings attention to the topic, and opens up a discussion, once its healthy and respectful, is a good thing, and so I will praise the book for that. Overall though, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to steer anyone towards the book.

Now, some of you may have read this and think I’m completely wrong, or I’ve completely missed the point, and I’m open to a discussion in the comments.

What did you think?

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