On the strength of the four novels by Irish writer John Boyne that I have read to date (2 for adults and 2 for children) he is one of my very favourite writers, scoring four five star reads and appearing in my 100 Essential Books strand. Both his children’s novels “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” and “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” are subtly complex, emotionally charged novels where a child outsider is thrown into extraordinary circumstances and where their lack of communication with the world of adults lead to misunderstandings and confusion which only make things worse for them. In neither of these (nor in the two adult books I’ve read) do you know what you are going to get from the title. Boyne, as a writer, is excellent at leading the reader into a journey which he/she is initially unprepared for. With his latest title for the older children/young teenage market you pretty much know what is in store from the title.
In a contemporary setting Boyne tackles the issue of the transgender child, here facing mid-teens knowing he was born into the wrong body. This seems to be very much an issue for out times which we all should know more about but it is not Jason/Jessica’s path we follow here. Boyne has given the first- person narrative to younger brother Sam. This gives everything a new perspective as the emphasis shifts onto the effects of such a situation on the family.
Issues are compounded by the Wavers being in the public eye. Mum is a senior politician with an eye on the big job, Dad her secretary and there are the views of the electorate, press and colleagues to consider. Jason makes his announcement very early on in the proceedings but the parents want it all suppressed. I can see what Boyne is doing here. Mum has achieved in what is a male dominated field and Dad has the more passive role already challenging traditional gender stereotypes. But they cannot accept this new challenge. Mum seeks to lead the country yet cannot offer support to her own child. This adds dramatic layers to the narrative but it does feel a lot less subtle than his best work.
I very much like the focus on younger brother Sam who reaches his already insecure early teens with his family history uprooted. His brother is the school star football player (nice touch Mr Boyne), Sam has always been the dyslexic not popular younger sibling and discovers that his brother’s announcement turns all that he has had in his past upside down and makes him vulnerable to bullying and tension both at home and at school.
Reading through the bare bones of the story it might seem that the author is box-ticking sensitive areas and producing an issue-laden work (and he certainly would not be the first writer of young adult fiction to do this by any means) were he not so good with character, dialogue and the day-to-day communication situations which feel universal and a step away from a mother angling to be Prime Minister, which is the aspect of the novel I’m not totally convinced by.
So no five stars this time but this is a valuable resource for those questioning identity or anyone who wants to know more about how these kind of issues would pan out. It is a marvellously empathic work and a very involving read.
My Brother’s Name Is Jessica was published in hardback by Puffin in April 2019.