Tomboy by Liz Prince
Prince is not a trans boy, though this is something she wonders about from time to time. Tomboy is a personal story, which means it doesn’t attempt to make any wider points or generalisations about the causes or meaning of gender non-conformity. It’s an exploration of one particular person’s gender confusion, and this is exactly what I valued about it. There are as many ways to fall outside the gender binary or to fail to conform to stereotypical gender roles as there are individuals who experience these things, and needless to say they are all equally valid; Prince’s story is only one of them, and it doesn’t claim to be anything more. The label she eventually picks for herself works for her, but the same wouldn’t necessarily be true of another person with similar childhood experiences.
I liked Tomboy for more or less the same reasons why I liked This One Summer: both do a wonderful job of capturing the mindset of young girl who defaults to questionable assumptions about the other girls around her, and both manage to distance the narrative as a whole from the central character’s point of you with subtlety and grace. For most of Tomboy, Prince thinks like a textbook except-girl: she sees girls as inherently less interesting than boys, and she conceives of traditional femininity in a way that fails to make a distinction between “not for me” and “inferior”. When a friend of her parents’ asks her “Do you hate girls or do you hate the expectations put on girls by society?”, she genuinely wonders whether there is a difference.
There is, of course, and a crucial one at that. But a younger me didn’t know that, and it was fascinating to watch Prince arrive at an answer. With the help of wise friends, feminist zines and punk rock, Prince comes to realise that she’d “subscribed to the idea that there was only one form of femininity and that it was inferior to being a man”. “I don’t want to be a girl on society’s terms”, she says, “I want to be a girl on my own terms”. She still is and will always be a tomboy, but she comes to realize there’s no wrong way of being a girl. Tomboy is a funny and moving personal journey, and I’m grateful I got to follow along.
Tales of Innocence and Experience by Eva Figes
I decided to pick up Tales of Innocence and Experience after seeing it mentioned in Marina Warner’s excellent Once Upon a Time. She called it a wonderful exploration of how fairy tales can help us navigate the world; when I spotted it at my library soon after that I knew I couldn’t resist.
In this book, Eva Figes writes a series of interconnected personal essays about her relationship with her granddaughter and about the act of reading fairy tales together when she’s still quite young. As Tales of Innocence and Experience progresses, it becomes evident that it’s about more than that: it’s also about how the darkness of the metaphorical fairy tale forest parallels the darkness of life; about the roles of older women in traditional stories; and especially about using fairy tales as a tool to tell a child that the world isn’t always safe. The question at the heart of the book is this:
How old is old enough for a child to know the world for what it is? In order to survive even the most mundane existence, by the standards of what we call the civilized world, a child must at some stage be taught not to touch dog shit, never to run into the road, not to go off with strangers. This last one is particularly difficult to explain, since we do not want our offspring to think badly of the human race. In stories evil and wickedness is easily recognised, personified in a witch, a monster, someone with features of outstanding ugliness. What if you cannot tell? What if anybody could be bad, underneath? What if that nice man who looks like an uncle, who smiles and maybe even brings a sweet out of his pocket, is not what he seems? When and how do we explain, try to explain, about the existence of paedophiles, child killers, Dachau, men who wear brown shirts and armbands and high shiny boots, in short, everything that might or might not go on beyond the garden gate?Figes is a Holocaust survivor: when she was six years old, she was evacuated to England with her family to escape Nazi Germany; her grandparents, who stayed behind, did not survive. Now a grandmother herself, she uses her own experiences to attempt to understand the family she lost, and she tries to balance the desire to protect her granddaughter from a painful and unjust world for as long as possible with the need to equip her to survive in this world. The result is moving and beautifully written: I loved it.
Greenglass House by Kate Milford
As more and more unexpected guests arrive at Greenglass House, it becomes apparent that they’ve all come for a reason. They all seem to have secrets to hide, and these turn out to be connected to the history of Greenglass House. As the snow traps the guests at Greenglass House, they gather around the fire and tell intriguing stories that shed some light on their purpose. Milo and his friend Meddy decide to make a game of uncovering their secrets, and soon they come to realise that the mystery in their hands is more intricate than they could have imagined.
I had so much fun with this novel. There’s something about its mood and playfulness that put me in mind of The Westing Game, only I enjoyed Greenglasss House even more. First of all, Milford’s worldbuilding is nothing short of amazing. The story is set in a world with its own rich history, mythology and folklore — a world of peddlers, skilled thieves, smugglers, sinister customs agents, and complex power plays that makes you root for those operating outside the system. Also, the worldbuilding is embedded in the story in just the right way: information is revealed when it’s pertinent to the plot, and there are lots of little details that hint at a vast world you’ll desperately want to explore beyond this story. I understand this is the same world where the rest of Kate Milford’s novels are set — I can’t wait to discover them.
In addition to a satisfying mystery and a twist that actually took me by surprise, Greenglass House has a wonderful cast of characters with emotionally rich, complex relationships. I don’t want to give too much away, but the scene where accomplished thieves Georgie and Clem hug was such a great subversion of the idea that women are always in competition with each other. And of course I have to mention Milo and his parents too: he’s a boy of Chinese descent who was adopted by white parents, and a lot of what Greenglass House focuses on is his negotiation of his love for his family and his curiosity about his own history. Milo is starting to accept this curiosity as natural, and to learn it’s not disloyal to his family to wish he knew more about his birth parents. It was lovely to follow him on his journey, and to see such a warm and loving portrait of a family with an adopted child.