Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Detransition, Baby

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Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby flips between present and past to tell the story of Reese, a trans woman; her ex Ames, who once lived as a trans woman called Amy but has now detransitioned; and Katrina, who is pregnant by Ames and shocked to discover his trans past. Ames proposes that they form a child-rearing triad, giving Katrina the support she needs with the baby and fulfilling Reese’s lifelong dream of being a mother. But will their different takes on parenting, relationships and what it means to be a woman torpedo this arrangement before it even gets going?

I had to read Detransition, Baby very slowly, not because it’s an inherently slow read (each chapter zips past) but because I felt like Peters was throwing so much at me that I needed time to digest it before moving on. Therefore, this review will take the form of a series of observations rather than the straightforward kind of review I usually write. It also occurs to me that this is the kind of book I’m going to rethink as time goes on, so these thoughts are also very provisional.

  • Peters is not interested in writing trans characters that are straightforwardly likeable or who deliberately challenge trans stereotypes, which is a good thing. When I’ve read trans women or girls written by writers who don’t identify as trans, I’ve found that these depictions tend to be so respectful as to be smothering. Peters seems to have looked at this kind of writing and gone, fuck this. Reese has very little time for what she frames as trans victimhood but at the same time recognises that she plays into it when it suits her. This tactic backfires when she tries to tell Katrina, who is Chinese-American, that Katrina, as a cis woman, can’t understand how it feels to want a baby and yet to be seen as unfit to parent. Katrina isn’t having any of this: ‘I don’t know, Reese. It doesn’t sound like you’re talking about all women, it just sounds like a certain kind of woman. Like women now, here in this country – white women… When my grandma arrived here from China, she wasn’t encouraged to have kids.’ Reese is also unable to understand how cis women might perceive pregnancy as a biological burden, because she so desperately wants to get pregnant herself.
  • The book portrays a trans culture that, in Reese’s words, is ‘morbid and highly skeptical’. Peters presents this as a coping mechanism for living in a transphobic world. In one particularly memorable chapter, Reese attends yet another funeral for a trans woman who took her own life, but although she’s angry and sad, she deals with her feelings by employing black humour: ‘What no-one wants to admit about funerals, because you’re supposed to be crushed by the melancholy of being a trans girl among the prematurely dead trans girls, is that funerals for dead trans girls number among the notable social events of a season.’
  • It has really interesting things to say about age and generation. One of Reese’s favourite narratives is that trans women don’t have any ‘elders’, and so she has to be a ‘mother’ to ‘baby trans’ women. She also points out that trans women have often gone through a second puberty, and so experience a kind of second adolescence. In short, Peters takes a lot of ideas from impenetrable academic books I’ve read about queer temporality and makes them accessible 🙂 
  •  The book isn’t afraid to tackle taboos such as autogynephilia. Ames/Amy wrestles with his/her sexuality, and whether he/she really is a woman or is simply turned on by dressing up and being treated like one. (I’m using both sets of pronouns here because Ames/Amy uses both during the course of the novel). However, Peters is too smart a writer not to pursue this question to its furthest extent; Ames/Amy reflects that cis women may also be turned on by performing gender, and so this isn’t something that’s unique to trans women. I didn’t agree with all the assumptions that Ames/Amy and Reese make about cis women, but that’s fine; Peters isn’t writing a manifesto here, she’s writing a novel about characters that relate to gender in a certain way and move within a particular kind of subculture.
  • Because of all this Detransition, Baby calls into question our pre-conceived ideas about who authors are writing for and what they need to explain. I often felt incredibly uncomfortable while I was reading this novel. Some of this was because the book messed with some of my ideas about womanhood and gender, which didn’t always fit with the ideas that Ames/Amy and Reese express (not in the sense that I thought the ideas they expressed were wrong, but in the sense that there wasn’t much space for me in this world, which again, is OK, there doesn’t have to be, I’m not trans). However, I realised that some of this was because I was worrying about the reaction of an imagined reader who is not me; an imagined straight cis reader who doesn’t know much about trans issues and is inclined to be unsympathetic. (These Goodreads reviewers call this reaction ‘not in front of the cis‘ or ‘not in front of the straights‘, which is perfect). Peters clearly decided that she was going to write without worrying about whether she was leaving the reader behind or presenting an unsympathetic image of trans women. And ultimately, I think this is great: how can you create good art, or talk honestly about identity, if you are constantly worrying about a person who doesn’t understand the basics of what you want to say?
  • Having said all this, Detransition, Baby does have problems on a craft level. This book is so clever and so interesting that I often skimmed past a lot of this, but there’s no denying that it feels rather hastily put together; the tenses often go wonky and some of the dialogue doesn’t work. Given the subject-matter, I think Peters can be forgiven for a lot of the ‘telling’ she does; if you’re writing about things that haven’t been spoken about before, how do you convey those things to the reader other than by telling? However, sometimes I felt that she was just dumping too much in, and failed to connect to her characters’ emotions. You could also see the joins in the unsteady jumps between past and present. Some of the sex was thematically necessary, but some felt gratuitous. So, this feels very much like a debut, but WHAT a debut; I’d definitely rather read a book like this than a book from someone who has totally mastered their craft, but has nothing to say. 

I’d also like to recommend this Goodreads review from a non-binary reviewer who I think really nails why this book works, especially the complexity of the three main characters.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number seven. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times and Small Pleasures.

Now I’ve read all seven books, I’ll be back soon with my overall ranking and shortlist predictions!

14 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Detransition, Baby

  1. Fantastic review, and sounds like a fantastic book. I did have a copy of this, but gave it away because (to my great shame) I read the first few pages and found myself unable to push through the specificity of reference to experience so far outside of my own. I would like to try again.

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    • I’m always struggling with this question in fiction: how far should writers aim to educate readers and how far should they just go with it and let readers get it or not? (It feels esp. relevant for writers writing about marginalised experiences, but actually it could be just as true of someone writing historical fiction etc.) Peters decides to just go with it here and I totally respect her decision, but that doesn’t mean all writers have/want to do that. I probably had a bit of a head start here because I’ve read loads of theoretical stuff on queer and trans identities for work and this has sometimes led me into reading stuff on trans identities I found on the internet as well. (I’m sure I didn’t understand it all though!) And having said that, this was still a hard read for me at times.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I especially like your point about the book making accessible a lot of more academic writing one might have read on similar topics (as I also have).
    I am a lot more interested in the discussion of gender and gender performance and everything this entails than I am in the story, I have to admit. I also made the, possibly stupid, decision to listen to the audiobook which makes the already uncomfortable sex scenes doubly so. I am still grappling with what I ultimately think of the book as a novel.
    But yes, what a very interesting debut and one I am very glad to see included on the women’s prize longlist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m really interested to hear what you think, Hannah! I have to admit that I find most S&M sex scenes pretty gratuitous whether they involve cis or trans people (or both), and I did get uncomfortable with the constant emphasis on submission, shame and degradation of vulnerable people. Some of the scenes told us important things about Amy, but I don’t think all of them were necessary.

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  3. I really enjoyed your review, which did a great job of conveying the strengths and weaknesses of a novel dealing with such unfamiliar-to-most readers (including me) subject matter. I had almost decided not to try this one (so many books etc etc) but I’m now reconsidering that decision after your review! It sounds like Peters has accomplished what good fiction should do, i.e., she’s expanded the boundaries of her readers’ universe by re-examining fundamental concepts of (here) gender. I’ll be very interested to see how you rank it compared to the other entries on the long list that you’ve read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! Yes, I think this is good fiction though it was hard work to read and I imagine it will push a lot of readers (including me!) far out of their comfort zone (I’ve said a bit more about this in my reply to Elle above).

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  4. This is an excellent review, although I STILL can’t work out if I want to read this book or not (I think I’m going to leave it up to the Gods of the Charity Shop and see if it pops up in the next few months). I have read some queer and trans theory and other piece of writing and know a few people who have discussed various things, so feel I have an “In” but I do also struggle with assumptions on the performance of femininity by cis women. Hm.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m not sure if it would be your kind of thing, but don’t want to assume! I did read those statements as the characters’ statements, not the author’s, though (and Reese is very much positioned as a deeply flawed character, so we definitely aren’t meant to believe everything she says).

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  5. Pingback: Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist, 2021: Wishlist and Predictions | Laura Tisdall

  6. Great review, this sounds like a fantastic read! I’m still hoping to fit this one in before the end of the month and ideally before the shortlist announcement, and you’ve made me even more excited to get to it. Good to know not to necessarily expect a perfect read, but it sounds like Peters does a lot of interesting things with these characters (I love that they’re not necessarily likeable or always “correct”) and pours a lot of food for thought about how gender is performed and perceived into the story without sterilizing its packaging. I’ve seen a couple of reviews calling it a soapy book too, which also appeals, tbh. So glad to see you found so much of interest in this one!

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