Thursday, January 9, 2014

For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu

Peter Huang and his sisters—elegant Adele, shrewd Helen, and Bonnie the bon vivant—grow up in a house of many secrets, then escape the confines of small-town Ontario and spread from Montreal to California to Berlin. Peter’s own journey is obstructed by playground bullies, masochistic lovers, Christian ex-gays, and the ever-present shadow of his Chinese father.
At birth, Peter had been given the Chinese name juan chaun, powerful king. The exalted only son in the middle of three daughters, Peter was the one who would finally embody his immigrant father's ideal of power and masculinity. But Peter has different dreams: he is certain he is a girl.
Sensitive, witty, and stunningly assured, Kim Fu’s debut novel lays bare the costs of forsaking one’s own path in deference to one laid out by others. For Today I Am a Boy is a coming-of-age tale like no other, and marks the emergence of an astonishing new literary voice.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Number of Pages: 256
Type: Hardcover

Reviewed by Peyton, age 17

I’m the sort of reader that is usually reading multiple books at once, and when I started For Today I am a Boy I was also in the midst of another novel—Middlesex, by Jeffery Eugenides. Both Middlesex and For Today I am a Boy revolve around the same topic: the problems that arise when an individual is born into a sex that is at odds with their gender identity.

At first I was nervous to start Kim’s novel, not because I was afraid of the subject matter or the density and difficulty, but because the story had such a similar theme to the novel I was already reading. I didn’t want to end up subconsciously pitting the two books against each other, comparing two authors that have such different levels of experience with writing novels. With an author like Jeffery Eugenides as a preface to my reading I was afraid that anything a first-time novelist wrote would seem flat or cliché in comparison.

But this fear was proved unfounded when, only a few chapters into Kim Fu’s work, I had already abandoned Middlesex in favor of the new story. This is not to say that newcomer Fu outshone Jeffery Eugenides. But the fact that I stopped reading Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize winning book in order to focus solely on Fu’s version of the LGBTQ coming of age story shows that I didn’t find this to be a frivolous or superficial book.  

I could use this review to compare these authors’ versions of the same topic—after all, both stories are told in a retrospective, first person narrative, both involve the use of flashbacks to build plot, and both use carefully chosen language to build intricate, believable memories—but I think that would be beside the point. The novels are idiosyncratic and they stand on their own. Comparing Kim Fu’s work to that of the already decades established novelist Jeffery Eugenides would only be doing her a disfavor.

 To me, this is a book about the relationship between self-discovery and self-repression, about the dichotomy between society’s command to “be ourselves” and the strict parameters in which that ego can lie. I believe that even readers with a more conservative viewpoint will find it easy to relate to this discrepancy, and the feelings of isolation and even self-hate that come hand in hand with these contradictions. I personally found it easy to both sympathize and empathize with the emotions that Peter, the main character, struggled with throughout the story.   

Peter is a strong character, at least in the sense that his emotions are discernable and believable against a black and white page of text. That is also true for the supporting characters, although to a lesser extent—in comparison, these characters can sometimes come across as less colorful and realistic, although in those moments it is important to remember that it is Peter perspective that is painting the picture of personalities, not some omnipresent narrator that is privy to all sorts of secrets.
This book builds character and plot through example, not through vivid description and explanation. There are no extraneous words, but I found that the description of Peter’s world is made more vivid by what the author leaves out from the paragraph and up to the reader’s imagine. I found that the author puts a lot of faith in her readers, relies on them to be active and aware, to be willing to fill in the blanks and find patterns and to make connections that are not stated outright in the text. This is the sort of writing that I enjoy the most, but if you prefer more straightforward books of description that tells instead of shows, this might not be the book for you.

This book is a memoir, but I definitely think that the author avoided writing this story in a slow or meandering way. Compared to non-memoir fiction novels that are written in a more linear fashion, the plot development of this novel does sometimes feel a little insidious, its scenes often scattered and then slowly sewn back together. But that’s the charm of the story; it’s stream of consciousness qualities, like an extended journal entry of Peter’s that meanders and goes off on tangents but eventually finds its way back to the present. It’s about minuscule moments that hinge scenes of self-discovery. It’s about being different in a world that gives you a cookie cutter and a meaningful look when you learn to bake, or tells you to stay out of the kitchen in the first place because you are a boy and boys don’t wear aprons and high heels.

The author gives you the tools needed, but in the end it’s up to you to mine for the meaning. I recommend this book for everyone who is interested in exemplary writing, LGBTQ experiences, or just a fresh perspective from Fu’s beautiful and heartbreaking debut novel.  

This book hits shelves January of 2014!
Buy Hardcover | $23.00

Happy reading!
Peyton, age 17

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