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If there were such a thing as the perfect YA novel, Alex As Well (Text Publishing) would be it.
Alex has stopped taking her medication. The other Alex–male Alex– lives in her mind, constantly jibing as fourteen-year-old Alex transitions. Born intersex and raised male, Alex changes schools without her parents’ knowledge so she can try to lead her life the way she needs to. At first she makes friends and gains admirers, even handling coming out as lesbian in the high school environment. But things get complicated when the school repeatedly asks for her birth certificate which states she’s male. Desperate not to be discovered, Alex seeks the advice of a lawyer to find out if she can legally reassign her gender on her birth certificate:
“Why does it matter whether I am a boy or a girl?”
“But it does. It really, really matters. People want to know which one you are.” (p15)
Alex tells her parents that she’s a girl and tensions at home mount as Alex’s father leaves, and her mother, Heather, despairs to her online cohort on a parental forum. Alex still has friends at school for now, though, and a crush on one particular friend – the school secretary’s daughter, Amina. With the question of the birth certificate still on her mind and the school persistently asking for it, Alex becomes increasingly worried and works for her new lawyer friend as an office painter in exchange for his help. Alex hides in the attic at home when things get too much, discovering reports from when she was in pre-school, detailing her aggressive behaviour and excessive crying:
“The medication that made me want to punch people. The medication my parents made me take to make me a boy.” (p70)
This is a revelation for Alex as she realizes exactly what has been going on all her life. Heather discovers Alex has stopped her medication and attributes this to Alex’s new identity, rather than accepting that Alex consciously wants to stop hormone therapy.
As Alex continues to hide the truth at school and negotiate her parents’ reactions, she is also asked to model, making money from shoots which allows her to plan her independence. At first this part of the story felt a little too dreamy, but then I thought, why not? A young trans person making it through their own hard work – yes, please. Despite it seeming like a typical teen novel fantasy, to be a model, Alex’s voice keeps it believable and typically hilarious and cynical. I was entirely convinced that Alex not only deserved everything good she worked for, but she was also conscious of when she was behaving like a total brat.
Just after I read Alex As Well, I found out about the recent German law to recognize babies born with ‘undetermined sex.’ Brugman highlights the issues surrounding choosing the gender of a child with undetermined sex, but also provokes thought on the matter of gender assignment in general. Alex’s parents realize the impact of choosing her gender for her: “We should have just waited and asked you.” (p134)
The only other books on the subject of intersex I can recall reading are the fantastic Intersex (For Lack of a Better Word) by Thea Hillman, an adult memoir, and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. In the YA world I haven’t read or seen anything like Alex before. The fact that it is one of only a small number of fiction books on the subject makes it a remarkable and important book, as do the writing and characterisation. What is so brilliant about this novel is not just Alex’s voice but the glimpses of parental perspective shown through Heather’s internet forum posts, with both insightful and outright crazy replies from other regular posters. Alex As Well is a treasure of a novel, with laugh out loud moments as well as unsettling scenes that will stay with you.
Alex as Well
By Alyssa Brugman
Paperback, 9781922079237, 244 pp.