The characters that populate Craig Silvey’s novels are highly sensitive, acutely perceptive and imaginative – people hovering on the edge of childhood and the cusp of adulthood and struggling to find or understand their place in the world.
This is as true of Charlie Bucktin, the 13-year-old at the centre of Silvey’s bestselling novel Jasper Jones, as it is of Eleanor and Ewan, the blind and reclusive (respectively) young protagonists of his debut, Rhubarb. It is true too of Liam McKenzie, the superhero-obsessed 12-year-old who narrates The Amber Amulet.
Sam Watson, the narrator and protagonist of Silvey’s much-anticipated new novel, Honeybee, is another such adolescent. The reader is first introduced to Sam on the railing of an overpass, where, filled with despair and unendurable hurt, Sam has come to die.
It’s a dramatic beginning, and much of the first act of the novel is structured around unfolding the actions and history that have brought Sam to this point. Sam’s particular context, that is, is treated as something of a mystery, the discovery of which is the main narrative impetus of the first part of the book.
There’s no way to write about this without a spoiler. Reader, you have been warned.
Honeybee’s opening mystery, the reason why Sam is different from Silvey’s other characters – and the reason why Sam’s particularly gentle nature is a problem in her family and life (and, arguably, in the novel) – is the fact that Sam is transgender. Sam is 14 years old, at the point where the body she was born in is beginning to develop the adult characteristics that are so different from those that match her gender; at the point, that is, that dysphoria so often becomes intolerable for trans people. For Sam, too, this is also the point where her family’s desire for her to act “like a man” has intensified, and she can see no way out of her discomfort and her shame.
None of this is inaccurate, as far as portrayals go – and it’s clear, especially from the book’s acknowledgements, that Silvey has done a great deal of research in writing Honeybee, and spoken to many people with lived experience of gender dysphoria and transition. Even still, there’s something about the way that Sam’s gender identity is treated as a reveal, as something startling or surprising, that sits uncomfortably with me. It feels othering, or almost exploitative, even as Sam is always portrayed with great compassion.
I’m not trans. I am queer – which means that transfolk are a part of my community – and the woman who I love just happens to be transgender, too. She’s an activist, and a mentor to young transfolk, and one of the reasons why she does such things is because, as a child and adolescent, she was never able to tell her own story, and because, as an adult, so many of the stories that exist about people like her centre on their pain and trauma and their struggle – and this is, she sometimes says, exhausting.
There’s a whole article that could be written about the rights and responsibilities of representation, the importance of “own voices” telling their own stories. There are smarter and better-placed people to do that. But even after Sam’s gender identity was revealed in Honeybee, I kept thinking there’s so much else to her, and to the novel, that her transness sometimes feels like just one more trauma without which the book would have worked equally well.
Sam’s life is difficult and it is traumatic – she is the only child of a mother who fell pregnant when she was still a child herself, and who has raised Sam without support, dealing with her frustration and sadness by turning to alcohol and then to much harder drugs. Sam has grown up in a series of dilapidated flats, often leaving suddenly when the rental arrears grow too high, and being continually bullied at school for her differences.
Most recently, Sam’s stepfather has joined in on this terrorising, because Sam’s sensitivity is anathematic to the rough and violent kind of masculinity by which he lives his life – and which manifests frequently in his treatment of Sam’s mother. Sam’s stepfather is also a con artist who ends up working as a debt collector and enforcer for a dangerous drug dealer, and storing fentanyl and guns in the family home. There’s a lot going on for Sam already, a lot of reasons why she might feel damaged and “wrong” (the term she uses often across the book) – plenty that could have brought her to that overpass, even before her gender is added to the mix.
At its core, though, Honeybee is a novel about unconventional kinds of love: standing on that overpass, Sam meets an old man, Vic, who has come to the same place with the same intention, but for each of them, the presence of the other person makes this act suddenly impossible.
Thrown together by these extreme circumstances, Sam and Vic become friends, and then a kind of family. Sam moves into Vic’s house, living in the bedroom that he used to share with his late wife, and the pair learn to support, accept and enliven each other. Here, Sam also befriends one of Vic’s neighbours, the ballsy and vivacious Aggie, a teenage girl who is so fully herself that Sam can’t help but be drawn in.
What Sam finds in Honeybee is a different kind of family, and a different kind of love – one that is based on choice, rather than just on chance – and it is with this support and encouragement that she is also able to start to find herself. This is a book as much about these kinds of relationships as it is about self-discovery, self-acceptance and coming-of-age, themes that are common in Silvey’s work, and that he always handles with tenderness and compassion. Honeybee is no exception – but it’s still difficult to reconcile this with the discomfort that is caused by Silvey treating Sam’s gender as a dramatic reveal, or as just one other trauma in her already-difficult life.
• Honeybee by Craig Silvey is out on Tuesday 29 September through Allen and Unwin