This is part of a series concerned with young adult books with LGBT themes, because I read a lot of such books and want to share them with you.
Becoming Nancy (2011) is set in 1979 London, and is narrated by sixteen-year-old David, who has just met the most gorgeous boy, Maxie. Maxie is captain of the football team, which is coached by the homophobic Mr Lord, who has his eyes on them both. David’s refuge is with Hamish McClarnon, the gay drama teacher, who casts David as, well, Nancy, in the school’s production of Oliver! There are requisite jokes about nancies, yes. Will they make it through? Will David’s parents find out? What happens when the National Front gets too close to home? Will there be a great big nostalgia fest?
Yes to that last one: David is really into Debbie Harry and classic Doctor Who. I was not in London or, for that matter, alive in the 1970s, but I can tell that this book is packed with enough nostalgia material to, I don’t know, construct a new pair of bell bottoms or something. A lot of it might be lost on the teens of today. I hope the National Front stuff won’t be, because it’s, sadly, as relevant as ever.
If I’d been Ronald’s editor, I would have told him to lose the present tense and first person perspective. It is a combination that rarely works at the best of times, and here, where it’s paired with frequent flashbacks to earlier in David’s day, it’s disorienting. That sort of thing works better for a diary format. David is also, how can I put this… his perspective is limited.
Here’s some of what I mean. David’s best friend, Frances, is pretty cool, and manages to transcend what is generally the tokenising position of the Black Best Friend. She drags everyone along to protests against the National Front. My main problem with her characterisation was how David relates to her West Indianness. She moves between her London and West Indian accents at times, which is fine in and of itself – it’s not often we get non-white characters deliberately code switching in front of their white friends. What’s troubling is that when we’re introduced to it, David frames it in terms of how she knows he loves it when she does her West Indian accent, and by the end of the book he’s referring to her London accent as her “regular” one. It ends up being figured as performative, for David and for readers. There are other moments when David’s anti-racist stance melts into the incredibly awkward, but that’s the one that continues.
Even with the presence of amazing Frances, David has some misogynistic attitudes and expressions. He talks about a trans woman he sees on a train as ‘glaringly evident,’ so I’m glad that, when he realises that their paths are sort of aligned and smiles at her, she glares back. He judges girls’ looks and perceived sluttiness, and his use of the word cunt is only checked by Hamish towards the end. Hamish is also the only one who gently suggests that, when David is sexually assaulted, that it was actually not a consensual encounter or David’s fault.
David aligns his gayness with his femininity, and so do his family (with comments about how he was always borrowing dresses and so forth), which is fine in and of itself, but that gets universalised in ways that Ronald never really intervenes in – which, again, would be difficult given the tense and perspective he’s used in this book.
This review has ended up being rather negative, which I didn’t mean it to be, but I guess my comments about the negative have dominated over the good bits, which are the cool retro popular culture moments, David’s bravery in coming out, and so forth. It is not a happy book, but I expect it’s a realistic one.