It’s been a while since I read young adult fiction. A long while. Ten years long. Based on the book I read back then —Smashed by Mandy Hager—and this latest from John Boyne, its a genre that deserves more of my attention.
My Brother’s Name is Jessica leap-frogged up my TBR list after I read John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky earlier this year, and loved it. Last year Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies impressed me, too. You’ll have heard of Boyne, no doubt. He wrote The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. That book was a smash hit for him. Although, when I picked it up years ago I put it down after thirty or so pages. The same with The Thief of Time. (I can’t tell you why, other than neither of them grabbed me enough to keep me turning the page —no accounting for taste, eh.)
Jason, who is now Jessica, was Sam Waver’s elder brother. It’s Sam who tells the story of Jessica’s transition. Sam idolises his smart, good-looking, popular, sporty brother and when Jason reveals he’s a girl, Sam is shocked and confused. As are their parents, who swear them both to secrecy—the possible reputational damage being much too much for this wannabe-prime-minster-mother and equally ambitious private secretary father.
Jessica’s parents believe they can force her back to being Jason. Electro convulsive therapy is discussed, and psychological treatment is sought, all with the aim of “fixing” Jessica.
Sam is confused and angry and doesn’t understand. When the secret gets out Sam’s difficulties at school get a lot more complicated. He’s bullied and ridiculed, his parents are distracted, and all he wants is his brother back, their family to be the way it used to be.
Over the weeks that followed, my brother Jason stopped talking to either Mum or Dad and barely spoke to me. He ate all his meals in his bedroom with the door shut, and one afternoon, when I came home from school, I found him installing a bolt on his bedroom door.
“No one’s getting in here without my say-so from now on,”he said when he saw me standing at the top of the stair case, watching him. “Coming into my room like that when I was asleep was the most cowardly thing either of them could have done.”
“But they both say they didn’t do it,” I told him, for Mum and Dad had each insisted that they were innocent of cutting off his pony tail, although they both made it clear they were glad it was finally gone.” (136)
Through Sam’s eyes the reader sees the unjust reactions to Jessica, as well as experiencing Sam’s grief for the brother he thought he had, and his confusion over what is happening. The situation is untenable for Jessica. Her family have failed dismally at listening to her, and at attending to her needs. She leaves home in desperation. Fortunately, she has the support of an understanding and accepting aunt who protects her while the rest of the family flail around.
I found this novel compelling. Boyne navigates the territory with sensitivity and compassion. The characters are believable, as are their reactions to each other and to the situation. However, the story is told from Sam’s point of view. It deals primarily with the impact of Jessica’s transition on Sam. The impact on Jessica is revealed through Sam’s story, often with out Sam being aware of it himself—that’s great writing.
To me, if there’s a failing in this book, it is that the ending seemed a little too easy, a little on the saccharine side. That said, although Sam reached an understanding and acceptance of his sister, it is clear that the journey towards acceptance hasn’t been easy for Jessica, and likely won’t be getting any easier in the near future.
Here’s an informative and favourable review from Radio New Zealand
John Boyne has come in for some criticism around this book, for writing outside his experience, and for misgendering Jessica in the title. You can read a piece of criticism here.
John Boyne’s response is here
My Brother’s Name is Jessica (2019) by John Boyne. Penguin RandomHouse UK.
First sentence: There’s a story I’ve heard many times about how my brother Jason got the scar that runs above his left eye, almost parallel with his eyebrow.
Categories: On Books