Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Choir Boy (Charlie Anders)

--The blurb--
"Twelve-year-old choirboy Berry wants nothing more than to remain a choirboy, surrounded by perfect notes, as opposed to his imperfect, quarreling parents. Choral music and the prospect of divinity thrill him. Desperate to keep his voice from changing, he tries to injure himself, and then convinces a clinic to give him testosterone-inhibiting drugs. The hormone pills keep Berry's voice from deepening but also cause him to grow breasts. Suddenly Berry faces a world of unexpected gender issues that push him into a universe far more complex than anything he has experienced. A fantastical coming-of-age story, Choir Boy combines off-kilter humor and its own brand of modern day magic in a rollicking, bittersweet story about growing up different."

--The review--
The ambiguously-named Berry is the centre of this unusual coming-of-age story, where the focus shifts from music and growing up to altogether more sobering issues. Anders clearly knows her stuff when it comes to the music, displaying an impressive breadth of knowledge and appreciation thereof; and, as the book goes on, the denouement becomes so realistic that readers get the impression that Anders also knows a fair amount about many of the other topics raised in the novel. A few morsels of research quickly reveal that this is indeed the case: Anders, like her main character, identifies as a male to female transgendered person. Writing what you know, then, certainly applies here.

The way in which this novel's plot evolves is intriguing and suitably gradual: Berry goes from wanting to stay in a boy-like state merely in order to preserve his beautiful singing voice, but this simple desire accumulates further depth as he realises that in order to stay female-like in terms of his voice, this to an extent involves 'playing the game' a bit (so that the medical professionals will continue to give him the medication that he needs to achieve this, he also needs to play the role of a woman in terms of dressing in female clothing, although the breasts accorded to him by the medication are helpful in this regard too). The novel therefore centres decreasingly around music and more on questions of gender and identity, and where the transsexual and transgendered really belong. Should they use male or female toilets? Should they wear male or female clothes? And should Berry be allowed to remain in the boys' choir that he has always been part of, or will he be made to join the girls' choir instead?

The feeling that Anders knows what she is talking about and the realism with which she expresses this leads the reader to feel a great sense of understanding and empathy towards Berry and others like him. But this is not to say that the book is a hippy love-fest: rest assured, the changes that Berry undergoes, both physically and emotionally, wreak extreme trauma and argument between him and those he cares for. His semi-girlfriend, Lisa, provides a welcome force of balance in amongst all this confusion and angst. Additionally, some of the scenes in the novel are horrifying: with Berry's revulsion towards becoming a man comes some graphic scenes of self-mutilation. This is not for the faint-hearted and Anders jumps in with this relatively early in the book, making one's first encounter with her work a real baptism of fire.

Anders is already a famous face in the science fiction community due to her writing output elsewhere. However, her arresting prose in this fiction debut puts her up there with writers such as Chris Cleave as a significant talent of the past decade, and I have a feeling that we'll be hearing a lot more from her as the years roll on.

Other works by Charlie Anders
The Lazy Crossdresser (2002)
She's Such A Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff (2006; with Annalee Newitz)

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