Title: Chained Melodies
Author: Debrah Martin
Publisher: I.M. Books
Pages/Word Count: 280 Pages
At a Glance: Chained Melodies is a poignant and memorable, if not altogether perfect, novel.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: Best friends since childhood, life takes very different courses for Will and Tom when they leave school. Tom joins the army to become a MAN. Will goes to university and discovers he’s not. When Tom turns up on Will’s doorstep almost ten years later, he’s disillusioned and broken after surviving Northern Ireland during the 1970’s troubles, and with a broken marriage and no future. Will, on the other hand, has just embarked on a completely new future for himself – in his case, a very different kind of self; a woman called Billie.
As Will transitions from male to female, so the boyhood friendship between Tom and Will changes too. Initial shock and repulsion on Tom’s part becomes grudging respect, and eventually something quite different. But life – and falling in love – is never that simple; and especially not when it’s in the face of prejudice, fear and lost courage.
Review: Where to begin a review for this book? If I were to sum it all up in just a few words, I would say that it’s the story of a man whose sexuality and body are speaking different languages, each unable to translate what the other is communicating. While Chained Melodies is told from the dual perspective of its protagonists, Tom and Will, by far the character who elevates this book, and somewhat delivers it from the melodrama of its ending, is Will and the beauty of the author’s mapping of his journey to discover Billie, the woman Will was born to be.
This story spans more than three decades, beginning in 1964 when two seven-year-old boys become the unlikeliest of best friends. Filling the traditional role of the “man’s man,” Tom Wilson’s masculinity is displayed over the years through his mischievous boyish impulses, his strong physical presence, his hyper-libidinous urges, his views of women as sex objects, and his stint in the military which was to inexorably shore up the heteronormative ideal of manhood. While Will is by far the more emotionally effective of these two men, it’s Tom who becomes the more pitiable of the two by virtue of his buying into the innate patriarchal definition of what it means to be cismale, which makes him oblivious to the complexity of his feelings for Will–the emotions he’s incapable of examining, let alone defining. In fact, at one point in my notes I called Tom a selfish son of a bitch, and for nearly the entirety of the book he lives up to the title. Conversely, however, I felt a deep sense of empathy for his obtuseness. The definitions of manhood he espoused had been so firmly ingrained in him from childhood, and then on through to adulthood, that he was emotionally stunted and incapable of self-reflection until a pivotal and epiphanous moment he experiences later in the story.
In full contrast to Tom, Will is sensitive, studious, introspective, gentle—in other words, everything Tom isn’t. For a good majority of this book, we see Will through a series of journal entries as he struggles to understand why, as he states so often, his body and psyche feel alien to one another. Will presents as asexual throughout the early part of his story; his sexual identity remains elusive and his desires lie dormant while Tom and his other schoolmates are experiencing the awakening of their sexuality and are exhibiting their attraction to the opposite genders. Will’s not attracted to boys or girls in either a physical or emotional way, though he does eventually attempt to experiment with both, each with confusing, if not outright horrible, results. What is made clear in his search for answers, however, is that he is not gay.
As often happens with childhood friendships, Tom and Will begin a natural separation as they grow up and grow apart. As Tom discovers girls and then leaves for his stint in the army, Will focuses on academic pursuits, leaving behind a dysfunctional family life, his memories of Tom, and the small village they both grew up in, for London. It’s here that Will’s life begins to change, as his worldview expands through a job that brings him in contact with a more colorful palette of characters—gay men, transvestites, and transsexuals who each in his or her own ways propel Will toward his own sexual awakening. Will’s characterization is largely drawn through introspective moments, and it’s where most often the beauty of this story resides:
“For nearly two years now I’d been Billie by day, and neither Will nor Billie by night—a strange amorphous mass, not quite sure what to be when there was no one else to see. Is it true that what everyone else sees makes you what you are? Or are you solely what you see yourself as? Maybe the problem was that I could still see both sides of me.”
This passage and so many others like it are the heart and soul of this novel—Will’s marathon journey to find Billie and to finally be able to put a name to the discordant body she’d been trapped inside.
During the first half of the 1980s, Billie slowly emerges like the butterfly from its cocoon. As she embraces her womanhood she must soon reconcile that she needs her body to match her identity in order to live her best life, and commits to the arduous process of sex reassignment surgery. The process of interviews, humiliating treatment from her assigned physician, a battery of psychological evaluations, and the challenge of living publicly as a woman who is little more than passably female further serves to illustrate how brave Billie is, especially as she (poised as Will) must confess her deepest secret to her coworkers at the library—a group of women who shine in their acceptance of Billie as one of their own. In many ways, in fact, apart from this group of ladies, Billie presents as the only healthy and well-adjusted woman in the book, and I still haven’t decided whether that contrast was purposeful to further illustrate Billie’s strength, or if it was merely a literary device—the female character presented as the evil/crazy/shrew stereotype. Having said that, though, perhaps it’s also a bit of literary irony that Will presents as the only healthy and well-adjusted man in this novel, apart from the dichotomy of his identity. At any rate, one of the things I had to continually remind myself as I was reading this novel is that I wasn’t experiencing the story of a transwoman living in the 21st Century. While the trans* community today is still struggling to attain equality and understanding and acceptance, in the 80s, Billie was facing an even more archaic level of ignorance. Having that frame of reference made Billie’s story even more poignant and her courage ever more admirable.
Where the drama intensifies in Chained Melodies is in Tom and Will’s reunion after we’ve witnessed Tom’s disastrous marriage meet its day of reckoning—and, perhaps, offered him the single greatest challenge to his masculinity. Tom’s eventual discovery of Will’s true self—his discovery of Billie’s existence—reinforces his unyielding views of the male/female archetype, but, at the same time, he earned the opportunity to grow as a man and, eventually, this gives him a chance at redemption. While I didn’t always love Tom throughout the telling of Will’s/Billie’s story, I did end up feeling compassionate toward him in the end simply because he tried. Where this story began to go a bit sideways for me, however, is the melodramatic turn it takes, one worthy of any soap opera script which relies on overworked and clichéd tropes employed for maximum conflict.
After days of reflecting upon why this disappointed me so, that the author chose such a blatant machination to maneuver the story toward its end, the outcome of it lies squarely in the fact that I feel it diminished rather than enhanced the depth and breadth of Billie’s journey. This novel belongs to first Will and then Billie—to see her achieve some semblance of peace and a chance at happiness with Tom was the only payoff I’d have needed in order to give this novel a definitive Must Read recommendation in spite of the fact I can’t say with any amount of certainty this journey was portrayed with accuracy. I can only say it felt authentic. Unfortunately, I feel I have to offer a recommendation with conditions now–there’s a bit of a jump-the-shark feel to its climax and resolution; yet there’s no disputing the fact that Chained Melodies offers one outstanding and recommendable quality—and that’s Billie herself, and her emergence as the star of this heartrending and memorable novel.
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