‘For Today I Am a Boy’: fantastic debut novel from Kim Fu

February 27, 2015

I have read many books in my life. Good books, great books and terrible books. I do not think I have ever read a book quite like “For Today I Am a Boy” by Kim Fu.

The protagonist is Peter Huang. Peter lives in Fort Michel, Ontario, in a six-person family, complete with a mother, father and three sisters. Peter is the only son, which is all her father ever wanted. However, Peter is in fact a girl in a male body.

From the first line of the prologue, this story is incredibly engaging. The story doesn’t start with Peter at all, but rather with her parents and the birth of her older sisters. Her father’s constant disappointment with her mother’s inability to have boys is written with a sharp honesty to it, and immediately draws in the reader into the story.

“For Today I Am a Boy” follows Peter from her early days as a child to her early 30s. It tells the story of Peter and her sisters as they grow in different directions. Adele, the oldest, flouts the wishes of their father and follows her own path through life. Helen, the second daughter, dutifully goes through with what her father wants for her. Bonnie is the youngest and Peter’s closest companion. Peter remarks in the book that she and Bonnie were almost more like twins rather than simply siblings. In time, Bonnie rebels completely, leaving Peter stuck bearing the majority of the weight of her parents’ expectations all while stuck in the body she never wanted.

One of the best traits of this novel is the easygoing flow of the piece. The book is entertaining because while it is mostly a linear story, Fu manages to incorporate parts of both the events that are happening on the page, as well as parts of the past and the future relative to the scene. Fu seems to have grasped the art of telling a cohesive story that is not told in the precise order that things happened.

One problem I often have with novels, and one I struggle with as a writer myself, is how to incorporate critical background information without overwhelming the reader. Too much packed into one scene can be difficult to process, and creating a proper flow of information as Fu does can be trying. Yet Fu seems to nail it. Every part of Peter’s life and her struggles is put together with perfect clarity, and the pacing of the novel is excellent. Reading an anecdote about an experience Peter had at age six amidst relating events that happened in her 30s seems completely natural with Fu’s rock-solid transitions.

Peter’s story is both easy and hard to read. Easy, because the writing style is clear without being devoid of nuance, and the narrative is complex while still keeping in mind that there is only so much information that a reader can absorb at once. Peter’s story is tough to read because she has a demanding life. As humans we often tend to do one of two things when faced with other people’s hardships: We try to help, or we turn away. This is an especially difficult thing to deal with in a book. However much we may want to help Peter, we cannot because she is a fictional character. As such a character, Peter is written with so much depth that we can’t help but want the best for her. She is also written well enough that at times we don’t like her.

Many people seem to be under the illusion that for a character to be a good character they have to be extremely likeable. I certainly disagree with that. People in real life aren’t perfect, each of us is the protagonist of our own story, and who among us hasn’t committed some disagreeable transgression? So why can’t the protagonists in the books we read also do things wrong in our eyes? I like that Peter makes mistakes. I like that as I was reading the book I sighed and groaned and tried to mentally steer Peter away from the mistakes that she makes. She lives out her life the way that we all do, as a series of circumstances she has no control over, and with reactions that are entirely her own but influenced by those around her.

Beyond anything else, these things are what makes “For Today I Am a Boy” so fantastic: It is both believable and tells the story of a multi-faceted protagonist. There are so many times when other novels appear to promote diversity, but they only allow the characters to be diverse in one kind of way. It often seems to me that too many of the highly popular novels don’t have the same kind of diversity that “For Today I Am a Boy” provides by featuring a protagonist who is a transgender child of immigrants.

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