Categories: Literature

Book Review: “Detransition, Baby” by Torrey Peters

A novel treading a line between messy and sanitized, Detrantition, Baby is an interesting read and a remarkable debut novel, but one that feels like it’s a bit of a step back for Torrey Peters.

The novel centers around the triad of Ames, a detransitioned woman formerly known as Amy, Reese, Ames ex-lover, and Katrina, Ames boss, lover, and who’s carrying Ames’ child. Ames proposes they form a relationship where Reese can be like a mother to the child, helping Katrina out and living with them. Katrina eventually goes for this, although the point of the novel seems to drift away from this and into a meditation of jealousy, broken relationships and what drives people apart.

There are moments of beauty in the book. The “Glamour Boutique” section – once released as a short stand alone novella, although you’d never know it from the copyright page – is a compact piece of gender exploration at a store catering to crossdressers and trans women, a bit where Peters nails the feeling of gender euphoria and creates a little fantasy that falls apart with a slight poke when a mother and daughter pop the bubble. It’s the strongest section of the book, and where it goes from just being okay to being good, by explaining the roots of Ames/Amy’s’ insecurities. 

The section where Amy chases Reese across New York is also compelling, a white-knuckle ride where the feelings of jealousy and insecurity build to a tense climax. That the payoff is a bit of a letdown is one thing, but it’s also remarkable for the fluidity of Peters’ prose, the way she’s adeptly able to build the tension and release with a blow.

But a blow is an example of where this book strays. The fight scene where Amy’s nose is broken. We’re to understand her nose, altered by plastic surgery to alleviate dysphoria, is a symbol of her “trans-ness,” a metaphor for her growing into herself. When it’s broken, we’re to feel like she is too: betrayed by her lover, she quits taking hormones and applies for a job under a male name. 

But the stakes feel so low here: Small Beauty revolved around a gang-beating; Little Fish a sexual assault. A single blow to the face? Violence, especially of the sort happening to Amy, is always shocking. But it doesn’t feel like enough to set the events of this book in motion, just a device to make things move in a novel.

Reese, meanwhile, is a real piece of work. She’s unfaithful, rude and more than a bit of a bully. She looks down her nose at people who want to transition but can’t or haven’t, not to mention people who are newly out and still working things out. She shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness or sympathy, and although she makes steps by the end of the novel, she remains a thoroughly damaged person – not the kind of guest anyone would like to invite into their house. In a few ways – from the ease she destroys people to her brand-label obsession – she’s remarkably similar to the narrator of Infect Your Friends.

It’s a bit of a shame really; Peters’ two previous novellas show her as a consummate stylist, a writer of precision and power, but here the forest gets lost for the trees. The stakes are never as high as they were previously, the mess is just a shade too sanitized. It reads sometimes like a book club version of the Canonical Trans Novel, one showing trans people are just like anyone else, but maybe a little more messy and real. But it holds back in a way The Masker or Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones never did. It’s like a checked swing, something lacking the followthrough. Readers of Peters know the power and humanity she can – and, indeed does at moments here – inject into fiction. It just doesn’t carry off through the whole thing.

Peters has said this novel speaks to a very specific experience, and in that she’s right. I imagine the Brooklyn scene sees it one way; as someone who, unlike Ames, never left their rural hometown, I see it another. The way the big city can corrupt people, the way pettiness and jealousy can eat away at the things we love. The shallow beauty of Brooklyn’s charmers.

I’ve struggled a little with detransition myself – as detailed here – and parts of Ames struggle rang especially true to me: the anxiety of being looked at, the silent judging and constant struggle of looking in the mirror and a reflection that never seems to change. But Ames is a special case, and not only because they went through with it. They’re also stunning gorgeous – “A few more years on estrogen and she’ll be beautiful,” says one character of her – and a bit of a charmer. Ames makes for one of the more compelling characters in this wave of trans literature. 

And indeed, Detransition, Baby is a good book, and a strong full-length debut for Peters. But it just feels a shade too cleaned-up after her novellas to really resonate. Instead of coming into her own, it goes for a more subtle approach, which doesn’t quite work for the stories Peters tells. It’ll be a good entry point for cis readers who are curious about “Trans Culture,” but there are many better places once you’re inside – like her previous works.

Roz Milner

Roz Milner is a journalist at Live in Limbo. They are a freelance writer and media critic who's writing has appeared on Bearded Gentlemen Music, CTV.ca, The Good Point and elsewhere. @milnerwords on Twitter.

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