Thursday, 20 August 2015

'The Art Of Being Normal' by Lisa Williamson - SPOILER FREE REVIEW

"Normal is such a stupid word," I say, anger suddenly rising in my belly. "What does it even mean?"
"It means fitting in," David replies simply.
"And that's what you really want? To fit in?"
"Not all the time perhaps. But a lot of the time, yes, I think it would be a lot easier to just blend into the crowd."

I'd been hoping to finish 'The Art Of Being Normal' before going to see Lisa Williamson in Oxford, but alas life and work got in the way and I've only just managed to finish it.
Telling the stories of two vastly different teenagers, 'The Art Of Being Normal' is Lisa Williamson's debut novel and it is a doozy. We follow David, a transgender teenager who has been unable to come out to his parents, and Leo, the new kid at David's school who is struggling with his past - and the fact that he thinks he's getting feelings for a girl he's just met. David's story gets laid out pretty quickly - in the first chapter, in fact, in a flashback to primary school when an eight year old David announced that he wanted to be a girl when he grew up. Completely contrasting to this, Leo is a closed book: we know that he's moved schools, but we have no idea why, and he's not exactly willing to revisit his past with us. All we know is that Leo used to go to the school over in Cloverdale - a highly rough area that has an extremely bad reputation - but he's now moving over to Eden Park, where the people all seem to have enough money to live comfortably without a second thought.
These combined aspects make for extremely interesting reading. Knowing everything about David, it's very easy to empathise with him and relate to him: when he references "the stranger looking back" from the mirror, and we see him being horrendously bullied by one of his fellow students, it's impossible not to fall in love with his character and want the very best for him. However, because Leo is so completely different we're not quite sure what his motives are - there's a rumour going around school that he got expelled after flipping out and using a junior hacksaw to chop off one of his teacher's fingers - and for a while it does seem as though he's capable of anything, because he is a complete enigma.
Due to this, I found that I was enjoying Leo's chapters a lot more (well, I say enjoying, but I mean reading faster - I loved every page of this book, so it's not like I preferred one point of view to the other) and I flew through his sections and would have happily read the entire book from his viewpoint. I don't know if it was the linguistic choices of his idiolect (using "Geroff" and "Mam" frequently perfectly invoke the imagery of the young lad from the council estate), the constant questions that were cropping up through his chapters, or his dry and blunt personality, but I just left like I connected with him in a deeper way and fell completely head over heels in love.
Don't get me wrong, I loved David too! He's extremely sweet and adorable, and his constant worries about how to tell his parents about wanting to go through gender reassignment are very easy to empathise with. He seems like a little puppy dog a lot of the time, and if he was real I would just give him a huge cuddle and pat him on the head. I just found that sometimes his sections were harder to read - possibly because of finding it harder to relate to a transitioning character, but partly because he was just rather different from me as he didn't seem to do much outside of school so most of his chapters seemed to take place in the school environment.
This is a really hard review to write, because I want to go into detail about everything. There is so much more I could talk about, but I think this novel is one that really makes more of an impact if you allow yourself to experience the twists and turns without already knowing about them. Luckily, I hadn't had any spoilers for this one, and I do wonder if I wouldn't have loved it as much if I had.
Trust me, I want to tell you all how much I loved every sentence in this novel. Too often, I'll be enjoying a book but a section will stand out as unnecessary or as needing some work on it, but this is one of the first books this year where I found myself getting completely wrapped up and reading fifty or seventy pages at a time without making a single note for my review. It sucks you in and it's impossible to put it down, no matter how cliched that may sound!
I don't know if it was the story that Lisa chose to tell, or her writing style, but it absolutely blew me away. I'm going to admit, I've been a terrible person this year because I haven't read nearly as much UKYA as I'd been intending to, but this novel is definitely the best UKYA I've read all year - if not in the past two or three years. It's certainly the best debut novel I've read in a very long time as well - I can't remember the last one that had me so emotionally involved! I'm trying to think of bad things to say, so this isn't just a gushing review of me proclaiming my emotions, but I'm afraid that's exactly what it needs to be!
If you haven't read 'The Art Of Being Normal' yet, please pick it up. If you want to read something unique and refreshing, something that takes you outside of your comfort zone and really makes you question your existence and the society around you, this is the book for you. If you are transgender and are scared of coming out to your parents, this is the book for you! If you've never known anything about transgender and think you'd like to learn about it, this is the book for you. Seriously, just read this book.
At the panel with David Levithan, Lisa mentioned the fact that she was already in the process of writing her second book, and I'm going to be stood with my hands out in a grabby motion until she has finished it. I need more of her writing, and I need it NOW! Until then, I'm just going to go and re-read 'The Art Of Being Normal'. Wake me up when her second novel is out...

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