A mother, named only as Ma, tells her teenage child, Alex, that they must both leave the house abruptly without any warning, and that Alex can only take the school backpack they’d already packed. The pair set off on a road trip across America, guided by a map upon which Ma has written annotations such as ‘Brainwashed broodmother’ in the middle of Texas, and ‘Den of prostitution and overpriced wine’ in Nevada. But there’s a pattern to some of these scribbles; many of them relate to a series of women called Laura that Ma met throughout her life. While Ma had romantic feelings for most of the Lauras, some took other roles in her life entirely; yet their influence was always positive. As she explains when Alex asks her ‘Why are they all called Laura?’, ‘You try to get the new Laura to fit into the hole the old Laura left. And when you get older it doesn’t matter that you know things don’t work like that, because your ears will be primed and your heart will beat faster at the sound of that name… until you look back when you’re forty years old and realise that you have a long string of Lauras behind you who were all important.‘ However, alongside Ma’s odyssey, Alex has their own journey; they (Alex) has no internal sense of gender identity, and take care to outwardly appear neither male nor female, so they cannot be forced into a box by others. The vicious bullying and sexual assaults Alex encounters at a series of schools has set them apart from the world, yet they are totally certain about who they are inside.
The Guardian headlined its review of The Lauras ‘an engrossing transgender road trip‘, which is misleading; Alex does not seem to me to be trans or even non-binary under the conventional definition used by trans women and men or non-binary people, because they do not have a gender identity, and so their gender identity cannot be at odds with the sex they were assigned at birth. Nevertheless, The Lauras is intensely thought-provoking about gender. This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about recently myself after hearing Sarah Perry talk at the Emerald Street Literary Festival about how she does not have a strong internal sense of being a woman. I don’t want to paraphrase her words too much, so here is a link to an older article where she says: ‘I’m not entirely sure I think of myself as a woman.’
When I was a little girl, I swung year on year between being a vehement ‘tomboy’ and being the girliest girl I could imagine. When I was five, I used to ask for a ‘boy’ party bag at friends’ parties rather than a ‘girl’ party bag – because I wanted the dinosaur and truck toys, not the dolls and glitter, but also because I think I already had the sense that I didn’t want to be like the other girls. By the time I was seven, I insisted on having my long hair braided, wore the frilliest possible dresses, and policed my own behaviour for signs of anything I thought was too ‘boyish’. As a nine-year-old, I swung back again; I remember one male teacher at my primary school joking that ‘Laura’s as likely to wear a skirt as I am.’ Perhaps cued by this kind of well-intentioned comment that nevertheless, highlighted my difference from the others in my class, by twelve I was in short skirts, platform shoes and badly-applied make-up. This is all summed up for me by an entry I made as a young child in the sort of diary that gave you prompts as to what to write. Under the sentence ‘This year I’m going to change this about myself’ I wrote ‘Being Like A Boy.’ A year or so later, I rubbed the last word out and wrote ‘Being Like A Girl’.
Perry’s talk chimed with me because I have also never felt an internal sense of gender identity. Because I have grown up being treated as a girl and then as a woman, I have learnt my way into this role, but it doesn’t feel like something that was mine to begin with. However, I think I differ from her when she says that ‘my being a woman only rarely occurs to me, in quite a detached and disinterested way’. Although I don’t feel that I always was female ‘inside’, I would say I have come to identify with other women through shared experience under patriarchy. Therefore, being a woman is now an important part of my identity, albeit not one that I feel has been present since birth.
This is a very long-winded way of saying that I absolutely loved the thought-provoking questions that The Lauras posed about gender and gender identity. We never find out Alex’s biological sex, or indeed, whether they are in fact intersex. As in the Ancillary Justice series, which are in all other respects very different books, I found myself trying to guess what Alex ‘really’ was, then wondering why the question mattered so much. As Alex appears androgynous, their sex has nothing to do with how they are treated by other people, except insofar as they are bullied and assaulted for being genderless. Taylor is perhaps a bit too blunt and simplistic in attacking readers’ assumptions when she has Alex think ‘Knowing someone’s sex doesn’t tell you anything… I suppose the need to know, how knowing changes the way you behave about them… tells an awful lot about you’, but it’s a point that is obviously central to the novel.
I’ve written so much about Alex that there’s little space to say much more about Ma’s journey, but rest assured that, if not as theoretically thought-provoking, her travels fully earn their place in the narrative, and, indeed, provide its backbone. Travelling from place to place, Ma picks up the threads of stories that she dropped years ago, and finds out what happened next, while being as at ease with her own sexuality as she is with Alex’s (lack of) gender. And I have to say, as a Laura myself, I loved the series of different Lauras that she seeks out. As a small child I often made friends with other Lauras because we had a common point of reference, and I still have a disproportionate number of friends called Laura in the present day (although the name was so popular in the year I was born that perhaps this is inevitable; I’ve rarely been in a large group of people my age without at least one other Laura).
All this is to say that The Lauras is a beautifully-written and gripping novel, remaining upbeat about difficult questions of identity while consistently managing to steer clear of anything too kitschy or glib. It’s been a brilliant start to my 20 Books of Summer.