I’ve been reading Charity Norman for several years and I never tire of the way she builds her characters, full of depth and complexity. She excels at revealing characters slowly, one layer at a time, and putting them in complicated emotional situations. This is one such example and despite being published in 2017 it seems very timely as debate rages about transgender rights on social media and in the news. This is a family drama, where we are brought into the seemingly idyllic life of Luke Livingstone. As we meet Luke, he’s seen as the perfect family man with a beautiful home in rural Oxfordshire and a solid career as a solicitor. He is respected as a pillar of the local community with a long standing marriage, as well as being a good father and grandfather. However, Luke has spent his whole life hiding a secret about who he is and he’s not sure he can keep it under wraps much longer. He has been hiding a truth about his identity and it’s such a fundamental truth that he knows disclosure will rock his business, his standing in the local community and will shock his family. He might become an outcast. Yet, he might have to destroy his image and the way others see him, if he’s to stop the slow destruction of his inner self. He has to become the person, the woman, he knows he truly is, whatever the cost. Luke is focusing on his eventual rise from the ashes and the rebuilding of his life, but first he must face the flames.
As the novel opens, Luke is so desperately unhappy he is considering suicide. Luckily, someone intervenes and sends him on a different path – the possibility of becoming the woman he is inside. He has always kept this feeling under wraps because of his parents and has now followed a very conventional path with his marriage to Eilish, fatherhood and now a grandparent to Nico. Now his parents are gone, he feels more free to pursue his own happiness, but that’s made harder when you know your own happiness will impact on your family. My heart went out to him, but also to Eilish who has loved and lived with this man for most of her life. Luke is a wonderfully sympathetic character and I can’t agree with some reviewers who have referred to him as ‘selfish’ for pursuing his own happiness. Luke was born in a different time, with more pressure to conform to society’s norms and values, as well as parents who were more traditional. As a young teenager, his feelings about his gender were only just growing and without transgender role models, either locally or on television, there’s no template for where to go and who to confide in. It would seem that he genuinely fell in love with his wife, rather than chose her specifically to conceal his true identity, and he still loves her, despite wanting to change gender.
The central dilemma is that in order to successfully birth his female identity, his male identity – the husband and father his family know and love – has to die. This is a slow bereavement process as they hear the news, then see their family member begin to dress as a woman, to take that identity into the world to be seen by work colleagues, family friends and his children’s friends. Just as this process is hard for Luke, it’s equally hard for the family – I loved the inclusion of a politically aware daughter, full of support for causes like equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community, but finding it a very different prospect when the person involved is her own father. She acknowledges her father’s rights in principle, but that doesn’t stop the feelings of hurt and loss she’s suffering. Similarly, I felt deeply for Eilish who is losing the man she loves, but has to ask herself the question of whether she has to lose the person she loves too. I’m not sure about the conclusion to their relationship, and I’d be interested in knowing how common it is in real life.
I thought this book was a fascinating read and really started me thinking about how it must feel to be in the wrong body, in a society that still expects us to conform to the established norm. It really did show what transgender people go through, just to be who they are. For me, Norman’s book avoided all the controversy and cancel culture we see going on in society today, by focusing in on Luke and his family. This is one character’s experience and doesn’t make assumptions or create a stereotypical experience. It isn’t negative about Luke’s experience either, the viewpoints belong to him or his family members and while they may be upset or shocked by his news as individuals, the overall narrative remains positive and non-judgemental which I loved. I know some will ask whether a fictionalised account is appropriate, because such controversial and complex stories are often best told by ‘own voice’ writers. However, I felt that the author had insight, whether that’s through personal experience or research. It is a book that started many conversations at home about the distinction between gender and sexuality, how it would feel to be Luke and the overwhelming fear that has kept him in his male identity in so long, and how it would feel if it was our Mum or Dad. Luke deserves to be who he truly is and in order to keep his family, he must continue to be a parent and grandparent as Lucia. It’s a book that challenges the reader’s own preconceptions and I love it when a book makes me think like this, plus it makes it a great book club choice. This was informative, absorbing, deeply moving and is a story that has stayed with me over the last four years.
Meet The Author.
Charity is the author of six novels. She was born in Uganda, brought up in draughty vicarages in the North of England and met her husband under a truck in the Sahara desert. She worked for some years as a family and criminal barrister in York Chambers, until, realising that her three children barely knew her, she moved with her family to New Zealand where she began to write.
After the Fall was a Richard & Judy and World Book Night title, The New Woman a BBC Radio 2 Book Club choice. See You in September (2017) was shortlisted for best crime novel in the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Her sixth, The Secrets of Strangers, was released on 7th May 2020 and is also a Radio 2 Book Club choice.
Charity loves hearing from readers. Please visit her on facebook.com/charitynormanauthor or Twitter: @charitynorman1