Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters

First published in Newtown Review of Books

Torrey Peters has written a complex and deeply moving novel about the ties that bind us – ties that govern our choices about who we love, how we love, and the costs. Detransition, Babyfollows a trio: Reece, a trans woman; her ex, detransitioned Ames (formerly Amy); and Ames’s new partner, a cis heterosexual woman, Katrina, as they each struggle with the idea of parenthood.

The narrative moves between two time periods, chapters named for the years before or weeks after conception

Reece and Amy meet eight years before conception. Reece is trailing a history of (sometimes abusive) relationships with cis men and Amy, a ‘baby trans’, is overwhelmed by her new knowledge that she is ‘a girl in love with a girl’. The conception in question is Katrina’s – Ames has found that his ‘atrophied testicles’ are, after all, capable of impregnation.

The novel is among the first by an openly trans woman to be published by a big-five publishing company. Torrey Peters received some vicious criticism when it was longlisted for the UK’s 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, but the judges publicly affirmed her right to enter the prize.

The novel interrogates traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. Our world devalues femininity and its identifying behaviours, which are seen as submissive and weak, and are ridiculed when adopted by men. In her influential book, Whipping Girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity, first published in 2007, biologist and trans activist Julia Serano asserts that defining masculinity and femininity as a ‘non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires’ harms us all. The reclaiming of femininity makes trans activism a feminist movement. Detransition, Baby is a profoundly feminist book

This familiar story, the introduction of a baby into a relationship, is wrought here in a context that strips away contrivances. The politics of birthing and raising children, a cradle of feminist struggle, is finely rendered by Peters’s three characters. Reece wants a baby, Ames struggles with the idea of ‘fatherhood’, knowing that Amy is still a vital part of his identity, and Katrina is torn. Peters observes motherhood’s myriad contradictions: expanding in love while simultaneously exhausting and impoverishing women; its very private anguish and joy while also being a public service­­ – a duty on which all have an opinion; and its privilege, which is granted and withdrawn by public policy governing access to contraception, abortion, adoption, and reproductive technologies.

Katrina challenges Reece on some of her assumptions about who is considered a ‘deserving’ mother.

Think about black women, poor women, immigrant women. Think about forced sterilization, about the term “welfare queens” or “anchor babies”. All of that happened to enforce the idea that not all motherhoods are legitimate … I’m not criticizing your feelings, Reece … I’m telling you that I feel the same. Because everyone gets criticized about how they should or shouldn’t be mothering.

Motherhood may be presumptive for cis women, but when these women do not adhere to the procreative norms, they are ‘treated like silly whores, obsessed with themselves, lacking some basic capacity to love’. Julia Gillard is a case in point, labelled by her political enemies as unfit for leadership because she was ‘deliberately barren’.

Peters brings us up close to the reality of living outside gender norms. It is to live with exhaustion: constantly alert, ready to defend, or retreat. It is to live with shame. You are not worthy of love, from a partner, or a child; you are not worthy of a job; trans women are tricksters, untrustworthy. Reece applies ‘in stealth’ for a job in childcare. When she and Amy go to an adoption information evening, Reece says, ‘I feel naughty. Like we’re passing ourselves off as just a normal lez couple.’

It is also to live with sorrow, to be hardened by another death, another suicide, another funeral. In Australia, the LGBTIQ Health Alliance 2020 reports that 35 per cent of transgender people aged 18 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime.

But cis and trans women share much, including a fear of cis men. A violent assault is a trigger for Amy’s detransition and she begins this path with sorrow.

[Amy] had, of course, long come to understand that masculinity dulled her, that it dissociated her from herself. But honestly, that’s all she wanted at that point.

Patriarchy has no time for sentiment, ambivalence or uncertainty. The humouring of the male ego is so internalised in cis women that Reece is floored by a man’s off-colour joke about his penis, and the muted reaction from the audience of cis women who ‘laugh politely’.

Something else shared is class privilege, a theme woven throughout the novel. Wealth is a protection racket buying safety in housing, medical care, influence. Reece is enraged when she sees ‘Tranny’ plastered all over a wall as part of a book promotion.

Those rich trans bitches. These fucking assholes who transition with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to protect them from ever hearing someone say ‘tranny’ to them on the street, so that one day they can write tranny on the streets themselves, and congratulate themselves on being so punk. As if, in a climate of political dread, no one has ever written Jew, or faggot, or hung a noose, or painted a swastika where some poor target tried to pass a small life.

Detransition, Baby is all this, and also so funny, poking fun at our rituals, our clothes, our allegiances; it is a glorious journey about friendship and facing our truths. Torrey Peters has written a story about how to live.

Torrey Peters Detransition, Baby Profile Books 2021 HB 320pp $33.75

Wedding Puzzle, Sallie Muirden

I recently reviewed Sallie Muirden’s gentle and thought-provoking book, Wedding Puzzle, for The Newtown Review of Books.

How does anyone ever manage to choose a partner for life? Given the imperfections of every choice, given that we are all complicated individuals with our own distinct bundles of neuroses, Muirden asks how anybody ever manages it at all.

Beth Shaw, who has spent her life so far trying to avoid decisions in love, preferring to be passively chosen than to choose herself, must answer this in Wedding Puzzle. The book opens with her driving to her childhood home in a pretty seaside town, on her way to her own wedding. The town’s mock Tudor hotel is where she and Jordan, her fiancé, had impulsively decided to marry a few months earlier. But the night before the wedding, she has received an anonymous letter telling her something shocking about the man she is about to marry.

Sallie Muirden Wedding Puzzle Transit Lounge 2019 304pp $29.99

Read the full review here.

Dying in the first person, Nike Sulway

First published in the Newtown Review of Books (18 July 2017), my review of Nike Sulway’s luminous novel, Dying in the first person.

This is a powerful and extraordinarily beautiful story of family, love and sacrifice. Sulway has created a world we enter slowly, uncovering the past and its hurts in small steps. It draws the reader into a place of mystery and wonder as Samuel is brought face to face with an emissary, Ana, who brings news of his long-estranged twin brother.

We learn of Morgan’s death in the canal near their home in Amsterdam in the opening lines —‘A woman came across the field, carrying the body of my brother, who had drowned.’ Ana’s first contact is through letters, then telephone calls. Samuel and his mother, Solange, have had no first-hand contact with Morgan for many years but on accompanying Morgan’s body back to be buried, Ana stays, allowing herself to rest, to be loved. In Sulway’s depiction of her growing relationships with Samuel and Solange, there is a longing and vulnerability that all readers will recognise.

Sulway explores ideas of sacrifice and the accompanying notions of obligation, commitment and entitlement; these are part of loving somebody. Her characters’ offerings to those they love are almost biblical in their scope—life, freedom, memory and voice—but we can see echoes of them in our own lives. We all make huge, yet unrecognised, sacrifices every day, for love.

It is through the book’s gradual unfolding that we learn of Morgan’s life, his self-imposed isolation from his family and why and how he died. Ana’s complicated relationship with Morgan is teased out. Ultimately, she has wanted to save him: ‘I believed I could rescue him, restore him to himself, simply by being patient and kind.’ Sulway’s examination of Morgan’s mental state reminded me of Jeffrey Euginides in his 2011 book The Marriage Plot where Madeleine, who wants to save Leonard, is told: ‘But you can only save yourself.’ Sulway is acutely aware of our limitations in treating emotional pain.

The book’s central theme is the power of language. Sulway portrays its role, through narrative, in recording truth, or lack of truth, which then, in turn, allows us to see reality and change and grow. As children, the boys develop a secret language, sophisticated and complex. As adults, Morgan writes books in this language and becomes famous; the language has taken on a life of its own, studied by linguists, the focus of international conference. His books are translated by Samuel who is conflicted about his role in appropriating words not his own. Who owns these stories?

As boys, they had developed an entire world in this secret language—the island of Nahum—inhabited by men only. Sulway’s examination of the roles of men and women, their strictures and freedoms, is light and deft. She never hammers home a message, leaving nuance and murkiness to allow us to reach our own conclusions. While her attachment to her women characters is evident—Solange, in particular, her talents, intellect, resourcefulness, independence—she tells her story through men and their agency. Women’s stories and powers, the influence of a mother in shaping her children, is always present but in the background.

One spring morning,’ my brother would intone, holding his tiny craft aloft in this wide, pale hands, ‘the father leaves his son sleeping and goes to the sea. He does not know, when he steps onto the deck, whether he will return, whether it will be a good day, or a bad day, but he goes down to the sea, because that is what men do.

And at the end, we are left with Ana’s sacrifice, her selflessness as she, too, goes into the storm.

Sulway’s writing is beautiful and evocative. She forces her readers to slow their pace, to absorb every detail through her recreation of scenes in real time precision: the trappings and formalities of a funeral, the basting of a turkey.

In the kitchen, our mother laid out her ingredients, as well as her needles, skewers, scissors and string, her long-handled, flat-faced spoons and glass bowls. She had taken out her recipe form its hiding place, where it lay folded all year, cheek-to-cheek with a page clipped from the newspaper in 1949, which had detailed instructions on how to truss a turkey. Once everything was in place, she opened a bottle of dry Semillon, poured herself a shallow, golden glassful and began.


In many ways, this is a book about the complexity of human relationships and the little that children ever really know of their parents’ lives.

Sulway, Nike, Dying in the first person, Transit Lounge Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, ebook and paperback (304 pages), RRP $29.99