Growing up in small-town Ontario a few decades ago, the only son of first-generation Chinese parents, Peter Huang is six years old when he tells his sisters, "I want to be pretty like you." All three girls know their brother's secret, but it is the shrewd Helen who squashes it. "You can be handsome, like Father or Bruce Lee," she tells him.
The transgender child has become familiar to readers of news stories about parents raising "genderless" offspring and pre-teens on hormone suppressants. In this respect, Kim Fu's debut novel about a Chinese-Canadian woman trapped in a man's body is well-timed: arriving neither too early to be dismissed as sensationalist (a highbrow spin on daytime-talk-show fodder), nor too late to be old hat.
More importantly, Fu rarely dwells on her conflicted protagonist in isolation, but explores the broader context of his self-realization. Father and son are both guided by a desire to belong, although their respective visions of conformity almost always work at cross-purposes.
Peter is born 30 years too early for his childhood struggle to be recognised – yet readers may find themselves doubting whether he would have an easier time growing up today. This is in part due to the complicating "family" factor. Fu's book is primarily about one man's unusual coming of age, but she also wrings singular truths from well-worn themes of familial shame and envy.
Determined that the young Peter will realise his own inflexible concept of Western masculinity, Father concentrates on imparting lessons about death becoming true men (while most Chinese men die of suicide or tuberculosis, he informs his son, his own father died "like a Western man. In a mine explosion").
The sadomasochistic playground games of Peter's childhood confirm these messages. As a bystander to a sexual attack on a younger pupil, he reflects that it is "better to be standing on this side than kneeling and weeping in the gravel while they leer." After hearing from the girl's parents about the attack, Father announces that his son is to move from a shared room with his sisters into his own bedroom. The message, to Peter, is clear: "My father loved me."
It is a conditional love, though, and played against his sisters' competing paths to independence. Peter finds temporary escape in a part-time kitchen job where he encounters the first of several mentor figures. Fu's eye for the tribulations of the jocular bully, Chef, and other supporting characters is perhaps her greatest strength.
From the neighbour grieving a phantom pregnancy to the girl who smells like sour-dough bread ("homey but tainted"), she deftly sketches the private tragedies of small lives to provide a textured counterbalance to her protagonist's own suffering.
Moving to Montreal, Peter embarks on a new phase of self-discovery. The innocent pleasure of shaving his legs for the first time gives way to more complex revelations as he falls under the wing of a sadistic older lover and embarks on a relationship with a Christian lesbian in whom he finds a kindred spirit in self-loathing. Throughout, he is haunted by the memory of his father, unnerved by his mother's incremental gains in self-determination, and bewildered by his sisters' fluctuating fortunes.
Reflecting on a younger generation, Peter wonders "What right had they to be born into a world where they were taught to look endlessly into themselves…To ask themselves, and not be told, whether they were boys or girls?" The super-tolerant society, we come to suspect, foists its own burdens on those caught between identities.
For Today I Am a Boy avoids many first-novel pitfalls. The prologue doesn't feel tacked-on, the narrative never becomes bloated, and Fu's prose is pleasingly economical. Occasionally, similes follow in too-quick succession (bedrooms grow off the kitchen-living room "like tumours," while, soon after, grass grows in tufts, "like hair on a balding man's temples").
Certain incidents are too easy to predict and strain credibility, and some scenes, such as that in which Peter's father teaches his young son to shave, feel overwrought; the long patriarchal shadow also occasionally feels over-explained.
These are quibbles. Fu has written a novel about alienation without lapsing into self-pity: a book that not only charts an outsider's perspective, but the relationships that form, enrich, and complicate his journey.
It has become cliché to hail an exciting "new voice" in fiction, and many are drowned out by their own hype. In so convincingly transporting her reader to a perspective still relatively new to contemporary fiction, Kim Fu should be an exception.
Trilby Kent's most recent novel, Silent Noon, was published last year.