Hidden Lives by Kestral M. Gaian: 1/10 Stars

 

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“I can’t trust my own mind, or my memory, so I’m writing all of this down… There’s been a murder in this town and I’m determined to get to the bottom of it.”

Aaron Grayling hates summer. It’s a time of heat and humidity in the dreary town of Meriville. It’s also the time when the bad dreams come, which have been intensifying since the death of his father. He hardly seems to find the space to breathe…

Until the fateful day he finds a diary in the woods. Penned by the mysterious X, it hints at a shadowy world of murder that seems too true for the boy to ignore.

Torn between school and a murder investigation, Aaron finds himself an unlikely companion in X. Can they stop the crimewave from hitting Meriville before it’s too late? And will it help Aaron understand the turbulent goings-on in his head?

 

Trans Book Reviews received a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Overall Rating: 1/10 stars

Matt’s Review: 1/5 Stars

This is a well-researched, well-crafted—if not so well-edited—novel that is taking a very interesting, pretty unique approach to a murder mystery. Hell, take out all the problematic-as-hell stuff in there, I would probably have enjoyed it.

But it is problematic as hell, so I did not.

There is no way to describe this book without enormous spoilers, so here goes: Aaron, the main character, is trying to solve the murder of a girl called Emma, with the help of a never-met individual called Xander. Aaron, Emma and Xander are the same person. Aaron has disassociative identity disorder (DID). His medication has made Emma and Xander slowly cease to exist, though Aaron still dreams about them and has forgotten that they’re not separate people. Now this, on its own, I would not be so horrified by, even if I am deeply uncomfortable with the book’s overriding message that it’s cruel to actually treat such a condition. DID is not a cute, fun case of, “Oh well today we have Emma but next week it might be Xander!” DID is very much held up to be some kind of special, wonderful thing by this book and as someone with more experience of disassociative disorders that I will ever go into, this is a really, really troubling approach.

But here’s where it gets ugly.

The bit where DID is compared to being transgender.

And no, I’m not exaggerating. DID forms because of severe trauma, usually in early childhood. This aspect of the condition is conveniently forgotten to allow parallels to be drawn between it and being transgender. When Aaron’s parents first realised he was different, they put it down to being transgender—he used a different name, dressed in boys’ clothes one day and girls’ the next, etc. (Which yeah, on its own, fair enough assumption to make.) Now notably, Aaron never identifies as transgender. This isn’t presented as a facet of Aaron. This book, really and truly, should not be presented as a transgender book. But, this aspect is there. In black and white. Apparently this gender fluidity grew more and more distinct until multiple personalities existed. After Aaron’s father died, the severity of the illness was markedly worse than before—but it did exist before, and was being treated as though he was transgender.

This. Fuels. Medicalised. Transphobia.

The note at the back makes it clear that the author did a lot of research, so how in the fresh hell did that research give a green light to writing a character with DID and trying to call them transgender? Being trans, you are constantly told you are mentally ill, and guess what, this is the illness you are said to have. You have to be diagnosed to be sane in order to get treatment. Sane! For those of you who have ever had a relationship, try imagining having to be diagnosed as mentally normal by two independent psychiatrists before being allowed to go on your first date. Try imagining needing to prove your sanity with extensive therapy sessions before you’re allowed that first rebellious tattoo. Hell, let’s go back to the medical world: imagine six months of enforced therapy before you’re allowed to get braces.

That’s what we face. No matter how certain we are that we’re trans, this is what happens to us.

Why? Because they are making sure we don’t have personality disorders.

This book hands ammunition straight to the transphobic world that we are actually insane. That being transgender is up there with having five people in your head. That if we are given pills to take every morning, our transgender identity—like Emma—will fade away and die, and we will become normal cisgender people once more.

Seriously. Aaron takes pills every day, and so Emma ceased to exist.

A trans girl takes pills every day, and turns back into a cis boy.

No.

That is all I have to say.

No.

 

Maria’s Review: 0/5 Stars

I can’t give this book any stars, and I struggled with my review for weeks, because as a cis reader not overly familiar with Dissociative Identity Disorder, I don’t feel remotely qualified or able to actually judge this story. I can only try to articulate some of my personal feelings.

To put it bluntly, this book made me feel awful. I’ll try to explain why, and that’s impossible to do without spoilers. Which in a way is a shame, because as far as the mystery Aaron is trying to solve is concerned? It’s not bad, the writing was solid and I was interested in the solution.

At the same time I read it with dread because I had a feeling where it was going. To put it bluntly: I think I might maybe know what the author wanted to do? As in presenting Dissociative Identity Disorder in a different light, away from seeing it as a mental illness? But as a result what it read like was something I have massive problems with. Because to people like me – cis and without much in-depth knowledge about DID – it read like Aaron was presented as “really” being a cis boy, and one of his other identities Emma, a trans girl, was part of his mental illness. And the medication he took for his mental illness made Emma and his other identities go away. I don’t think I have to explain how “Take a pill and kill the trans girl.” can be interpreted, how it can and *is * twisted around in real life, and in what harmful narratives this feeds and how much violence this narrative has led to in past and present. Tying being trans exclusively to mental illness, having the trans girl vanish because of medication and leaving us with the “real” Aaron, a cis boy, as the protagonist? It all… it made me feel all kinds of bad things, nausea and hurt, and honestly completely screwed me over. No matter what the author intended, that was the result.

Another thing that mattered to me personally was language. I know there’s been debates over language “counting” as representation. No matter what side you fall on regarding this, there’s this thing I kind of expect from authors. Which is: If you use a foreign language in your book, you need to do your research and ideally find someone who speaks the language to check your words for you. Now I realize not everyone has a German friend they can ring and ask for advice. So even though I was excited about Aaron’s mother being German, I expected some minor errors here or there.

What I didn’t expect was that level of unchecked mistakes and errors. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen your language – which basically never pops up in English books in the first place – being butchered on the page. It is… a unique kind of crushing feeling to be honest. Especially when it leads to a lot of confusion. One particular error that got to me was Aaron’s pet name that his mother gave him. If you use German in your book, you have to be aware that it is a highly gendered language. We gender almost all of our words, so when Aaron’s mother calls him “Kleine” (little one) – she is using the wrong form of the word. It should have been “Kleiner”. Which, in the beginning, led me to believe Aaron was a trans boy and his mother kept misgendering him. It was extremely jarring and confused me over and over again.

Other things distracted me too, because they felt jarring and completely ripped me out of the narrative. Wrong capitalization, turns of phrases, idioms that didn’t make sense the way they were used, etc. I love my language, I love seeing it in books, but the way it was done here was not okay. It added insult to injury in my case.

So. No stars. I just don’t know how. All I can say is: I found the book hurtful and confusing and didn’t enjoy it.

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