Book Review: Ruth


“Are women born or are they made in the process of living as women?”

As a topic, gender transitioning can be a hot potato. Add to this my personal antipathy towards reading graphic descriptions of sexual activity and Ruth, by Guillem Viladot (translated by P. Louise Johnson), may not have been my first choice of book. When it arrived through my door I set it aside, considering whether I wished to risk reading a story I may not enjoy. In the end two things appealed: it is published by a press I respect for putting out works that differ from the cookie cutter mainstream; it is epistolary, a format which, when done well, can be eminently engaging.

The correspondence through which the tale is told is entirely one sided. A short prelude details how the writer met the recipient. There is no indication if the letters that follow are welcomed.

The eponymous Ruth was baptised Raül, the second child of parents wealthy enough to support her through art college and beyond, when she worked as a sculptor. From a young age Ruth preferred the company of girls to boys. She wished to dress like them, something that appalled her mother.

“Because mother’s carry and give birth to their children, they seem to think they have the right to treat them as their property”

In order to become physically what Ruth believes she has always been, medical intervention is desired. When examined she is declared intersex – she has an underdeveloped penis but the smooth, hairless skin of a female. It is her wish to undergo surgery to remove the unwanted appendage and attain a vagina. She takes medication that causes her breasts to grow and seeks out sex as the female she presents as.

“my whole raison d’être is reduced to coitus”

The letters detail her encounters with men and women, describing explicitly their kisses, caresses and penetrations. There is a great deal of sex leading to multiple orgasms. Given the subject being explored this offered a degree of exploration into what it means to be a man or a woman. There is also the emotional difficulty of living in a body that does not fully reflect one’s identity.

Although Ruth’s mother is brutally callous in her reaction to her child’s gender transition, the sister is supportive, as are various friends including lovers. One of these, a young man Ruth enjoys her first sexual relations with, warns her when she falls in love with another.

“your emotional attachment is likely to be more complex because your femininity originates in the rejection of your male nature rather than in the affirmation of a natural femaleness”

Ruth proves quick to anger when challenged yet appears to avoid many of the more hurtful encounters that may, sadly, be expected. When her penis is discovered by potential lovers it is mostly regarded with fascination. The medical professionals who treat her are supportive and admiring of her superficial beauty. Ruth writes in vivid detail of her complex thoughts and experiences, exhibiting and describing body parts that are more often kept private. Her looks and those of others appear to matter to her more than less facile attributes.

A fascinating work of fiction offering much to consider on an issue currently garnering heated debate. Not always a pleasant read given its sexually graphic content but one it would be good to discuss with someone more directly knowledgeable. Whatever one’s views may be this is a poignantly challenging and lingering read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa


Book Review: This is How it Always Is


This is How it Always Is, by Laurie Frankel, tells the story of the Walsh-Adams family. Rosie is a doctor. Her husband, Penn, is an aspiring author. They live in an old, sprawling farmhouse in Wisconsin with their five young sons. In the summer months Rosie’s mum rents a small house nearby and helps out with the kids. Life is full and exhausting and chaotic but somehow they get by. Then their youngest, their clever and precocious three year old son Claude decides that he wants to be a girl.

At first it doesn’t seem to matter. It is assumed to be a phase. Claude wears an old dress of Rosie’s around the house. He wants to wear it to preschool but his parents say no, worried about how the other kids would react. Slowly they come to realise that Claude feels stifled by their insistence that he conform to society’s expectations for his gender. They accept the weird in their other sons, and there is plenty of weird in this family as there is hidden in most others, but still they struggle with allowing their littlest boy to grow his hair and wear a dress. This is what he wants. This is all he wants.

What follows is the family’s attempt to accommodate Claude’s obvious and growing need. It is a constant balancing act between allowing their child to be herself and protecting her from the rancour of those who see this sort of behaviour as a perversion. Amongst the children it is difficult but the greatest challenge is dealing with the sometimes vicious reactions of adults.

As Claude grows, changes are made to help her become the girl she feels she is. As happens during any child’s development, a whole new set of problems emerge as she ages. Should Claude’s history be shared with those who don’t know she was once a boy?  And then, how should they deal with puberty?

By placing Claude in a big family the author is able to explore the effect of gender dysphoria on siblings. When Claude starts a new school she is accepted as a girl because her classmates are told no different. It was never intended to be hidden but that is what happens How is the truth to be revealed now that she has made good friends? Secrets take their toll on all involved.

Rosie and Penn are doing the best they can for Claude and sometimes this seriously disrupts the lives of their other children. All are developing and learning, trying to fit in and get by. So much of a parent’s efforts on behalf of their children are directed towards giving them the best chances for the future. When it comes to Claude this may include drugs and possible surgery. Timing affects the success of outcomes, but can they be sure that this is what their young child will want later in his or her life?

The writing style is gentle despite the difficult issues being presented. Rosie and Penn do not always get things right, but then what parents do? The hypocrisies of society’s attitude to gender are well evoked, as is the intolerance of a supposedly progressive country. In the middle of it all is a child who longs for acceptance for what she is, something that she struggles to find words to explain.

For me the most shocking aspect of this book was not just the blatant but also the passive aggressive treatment of transgender individuals, even by those who consider themselves liberal, and the high rate of suicide amongst the young that this causes. Gender dysphoria is not going to go away just because it discomforts those who would prefer everyone to conform to their narrow definition of normal. What is needed is better education and acceptance, and not just along lines proscribed by tick box legislation which can sometimes create little more than different sets of boxes for people to be squeezed uncomfortably into.

This is a thought provoking read that I am happy to recommend. It does not offer easy answers, but the questions asked are more profound than acceptance of binary gender change.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.