This book is already creating a superb hum in the online blogging and bookselling universe. The passion and drive that Phil Earle and the rest of the team at David Fickling Books are drumming up right now has created a sense of excitement and anticipation which rarely accompanies a debut release. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of the novel, and let me tell you – This is going to be big. The love this book is already gaining is entirely justified, and it better break the YA world open when it comes out next year.
The Art of Being Normal tells the story of fourteen year old David Piper, a boy who for as long as he can remember, has known that he was supposed to be born a girl. Unable to tell his parents or his sister, he keeps his secret ambitions hidden in a scrapbook under his bed, dreaming of one day being able to get the help he needs to become the person he knows he’s supposed to be. The only people who know are David’s only friends, Essie and Felix, his classmates in the agonising world of Eden Park School. It also tells the story of the angry sixteen year old loner Leo Denton, who is doing his GCSE year at Eden Park, after being expelled from the local estate school Cloverdale. David becomes fascinated with the mysterious, potentially dangerous if the rumours are to be believed, stranger, though he can’t put his finger on why. He’s fairly certain it’s not a romantic connection; he just finds Leo Denton an enigma to be unravelled. Leo, on the other hand, is content to keep his head down, finish his exams unscathed and get the chance to go to a half decent college somewhere far away from his mum and her constant string of scummy boyfriends. The two outcasts worlds are about to collide though, and Leo is forced to interact more than he ever planned to, especially when his attractive classmate Alicia Baker starts to take an interest in him – An interest he definitely returns. Eventually, Leo goes overboard, and when he sees the shy David being bullied by Year 9 hot-stuff Harry, he snaps, punching him in the face. His valiant act saves David from almost being outed as Transgender, and lands him with a permanent sidekick, no matter what he wants. School life isn’t going quite how Leo Denton had planned, but his inability to control his anger is nothing new. It isn’t going how David planned either, living a life that’s a lie is starting to take its toll on him as he cries himself to sleep at night. The poor and troubled Leo and David’s lives an inseparably linked now, though. More than either of them realise.
I honestly don’t know where to start with this book – probably the most profound and important YA Novels written in recent years, and a brilliant sign of the YA market’s evolution in response to the outpouring of demand for more diversity in our books. If The Art Of Being Normal is a sign of things to come, along with UKYA authors like James Dawson, Non Pratt and Malorie Blackman flying the flag for inclusion in teen fiction, then we are on the edge of a golden age of superbly emotional contemporary stories, which I fully hope will spill out of the teen sections and into all books.
Characters! That’s where I normally start my reviews. Sorry, this book has addled my brain in the best way possible. I absolutely adore David, his melancholy personality tucked behind a flamboyant surface was a great way of presenting this character who is always performing, because he can never truly be who he wants to be. His personality immediately made me relate to him – I’m more than a bit camp myself, and he’s so grounded and so well explored both in front of others, and at home, that it’s impossible not to feel a tug at your heart every time he laments his man-sized feet or protruding Adam’s Apple. The later parts of the novel, when David experiments with being Kate, are absolutely beautiful, touching and emotive, and made me tear up – In the happy way! Leo is a complex, surly character, and his slow bloom outwards through his feelings towards Alicia and friendship with David is altogether brilliant and bright, as well as raw and angry. He perfectly encapsulates to the anger and confusion that laces the lives of many teenagers from troubled backgrounds – kids who have done nothing wrong and don’t understand why life keeps piling it on them. His flashbacks are some of the most harrowing passages in the book, and they quite often had me gasping and covering my mouth in horror, but his slow burning emotions are so powerful that no matter how cool and collected he tries to be, the reader gets to see just how dedicated and loving he is. Through flashes of his home life, and the gradual unfurling of his past, we start to understand his often over-boiling rage and frustration towards the injustices of his life. The support characters throughout the story are perfectly realised, equal parts flawed and flawless, with Essie and Felix being the sweetest couple, supporting their best friend in his struggles with his identity in a funny way – the way friends always should be. Alicia is a gorgeous character, so kind and fresh that I really wanted her to be my friend as I was reading. Although the book radiates acceptance and tolerance through many characters, there is still plenty of hurtful behaviour from the majority, and Lisa pulls no punches when writing the abuse from Harry and Becky, making the reader’s heart hurt and stomach churn. Even inherently loving characters (notably the adults in the story) have engrained prejudices that occasionally well up to their surfaces, re-enforcing the secrecy that David (and many other Transgender individuals) feel he has to keep.
On the surface of it, The Art of Being Normal has the chance to be a heartbreaking story of the downtrodden, and in a YA market so often saturated with tragedy and darkness, it’s refreshing to see such a powerful novel with such an uplifting voice behind it. Lisa writes with such bounce and brightness that her words lifted my spirits on many 7:30am train rides, but she also knows exactly how to punch to the throat, and the book has some upsettingly dark moments – but vitally so. These things happen, and sticking your head in the sand won’t make them go away. It’s a full spectrum of emotions, in the same way life is. Her voice permeates the book, creating life-like dialogue and believable teenaged characters, as opposed to John Green-esque poets, and that makes her book so much more accessible to readers.
Ultimately, this book demands your attention. It not only deserves to be read as a brilliantly piece of fiction (I did shout “OH MY GOD” out loud at one point), but as a step towards a more complete acceptance of the full diversity of the human species, and as a strike against this concept of normal. It should be on school reading lists and winning awards throughout 2015. I feel like this is the start of something very important, and I’m overjoyed to be here at the beginning.
How can you get involved? Join in the cover reveal FLASHMOB, that’s how! On the 21st of October, Lisa Williamson & the good people at David Fickling Books will be revealing the book’s official jacket, and they’re asking bloggers, reviewers and book lovers around the world to tweet and instagram it along with them using the hashtag #WhatisnormalFlashmob. More information can be found on the DFB Website Here.
Thanks for Reading,
P.S. – All my thanks to the wonderful Phil Earle, once more, for sending me a proof of this book. He gets it.
P.P.S – The Art of Being Normal will be published in Hardback in January 2015.
P.P.P.S. – Yes, I am listening to Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues whilst I write this review – A very angry punk rock album that manages to be energetic and beautiful, fronted by Transgender woman Laura Grace. I urge you seek it out.