Luke Livingstone has reached a crossroads, he can either become the person he really wants to be or end his torment by taking his own life. Just as Luke thinks he’s made the right decision for him, an unexpected chat with an elderly woman on the train gives him pause for thought. Unable to take that last step, Luke decides he wants to live but only if he can free the woman trapped inside his body.
From a young age, Luke has been battling with his identity as the world keeps telling him he is a male, yet he knows differently, and now, after fifty years of conforming, Luke is about to tell the truth. However, the truth will come with a terrible price as it ends his thirty year marriage to Eilish and causes a serious rift with his son, Simon, who blocks Luke’s access to his grandchildren. Undaunted, Luke continues with his journey to become Lucia, eventually winning the support of his daughter, Kate, and making new friends along the way.
The New Woman was a total revelation to me, in more ways than one, as I downloaded it without reading the blurb since I had enjoyed reading Charity Norman’s previous books. When Luke reveals his secret to his wife, it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to her as Norman is careful to keep everything under wraps until that moment and I have to say I loved finding out at the same time as his wife. It made it all the more poignant.
One of the things I love about Norman’s books is the way she presents the story from multiple points of view so each character gets their chance to say what they think and feel which goes a long way into rounding out the story and offering different angles. For Eilish, Luke’s revelation comes as a complete shock and as she struggles to come to terms with it, Norman portrays her somewhat as a grieving widow since Eilish has essentially lost the man she married. A part of Eilish clings to the notion that Luke will come to his senses but at the same time, she starts to remember incidents where her shoes and dresses were suddenly too big and realises her husband has been wearing them in secret.
In much the same way, Luke’s son, Simon, is completely horrified by his father’s admission and he thinks Luke is having some sort of nervous breakdown. As Simon finds it increasingly difficult to cope, he says some appalling things, however Norman ensures we feel some measure of sympathy as she describes how close father and son have been over the years. As Simon’s bad behaviour continues, he alienates his own family and his wife hits the nail on the head when she points out that Simon is grieving. In contrast, Simon’s sister, Kate, seems more open to listening to her father but while she continues to visit him, she basically avoids talking about her father’s transition so she isn’t really dealing with it either.
Of course, the most important narrative is left to Luke as he deals with the consequences of his admission and begins his journey towards becoming Lucia. I actually found a lot of Luke’s chapters quite distressing to read, mainly because I was suddenly being forced into thinking about a subject I hadn’t really cared about much. When Luke is reminiscing about his childhood, Norman very cleverly uses the female pronoun which effectively creates a dichotomy in the reader’s mind as to how Luke sees himself and how the world perceives him. Some of these episodes are very hard to read and for the first time in my life, I actually started to understand how distressful it must feel for a person to be trapped inside a body of the wrong gender.
Luke’s transition into Lucia is an interesting one as he inevitably meets a lot of prejudice from professionals as well as members of the public, however there are also positives as he reaches out to support groups and makes new friends. Luke has always dressed as a woman in private, so Lucia’s initial forays into public are scary ones with the sense of panic being very well described to the point I had nothing but admiration for Lucia’s bravery. However, there were points where I felt the writing was sometimes a little repetitive in places with the same ground consistently being covered. I also don’t think Lucia’s distress at being separated from her family was exploited enough because I never believed they wouldn’t find their way back to each other. How many transgender people are really lucky enough to be fully accepted by their friends and family in reality? Everything is wrapped up a little too neatly for my liking.
What I loved the most about this book was how it made me think about something I may have not necessarily felt sympathetic about in the past and it has certainly changed my opinion on a lot of things. No one should have to endure that sort of torment and sometimes I just despair of our species. Luke is often referred to as a cross-dresser or a transvestite by the ignorant and Norman does a great job of pointing out the differences. I will admit to feeling confused by a lot of the different terms used to describe transgender, as well as sexual orientation, although I still don’t feel like I have a complete grasp of it even after reading this book. That’s not the fault of the author though as the subject is a positive minefield and will probably involve a whole lot more research. As if these topics aren’t enough to be going on with, Norman also explores gender identity and how we are all guilty of stereotyping children. So, there is plenty to digest!
Please note, I have continued to refer to the main character as Luke throughout most of this review, mainly because it takes almost the full length of the story before Lucia fully displaces Luke, and also for clarity’s sake.