A review by Nalini Haynes
Emma and Jess have been in a long-term relationship – six years, 3 living together – when Jess admits to cross-dressing. This quickly evolves into Jess becoming trans. The transition is difficult for both of them, told at length in Now That I See You.
This novel is written idiosyncratically like a memoir, from Emma’s point of view with only a couple of glimpses of Jess’s point of view. Marketed as “autofiction” – autobiographical fiction – it’s unclear how much of this story is fiction. Prose is part first person narration, part journal entry and part email.
This story is about Emma’s response to Jess’s transition, Emma’s point of view, Emma’s apparent mental breakdown and recovery.
When I studied sexuality as part of my bachelor, grad dip and masters degrees, we looked at case studies of transitions. A trans woman came to talk to us, telling us how she transitioned and her family dynamics throughout, including her wife’s response. (Her wife came out as a lesbian but could not entertain the idea of a relationship with her trans wife. Teenage daughter yelled at both parents for displaying lesbian paraphernalia because “Not everyone in this house is a lesbian!”)
Every transition is different. However, there are distinct similarities in Now That I See You to others. It is common for partners to separate, instigated by one or the other, because this is a huge change. There are parallels to the formative teen years.
Jess tells Emma repeatedly that Jess wants to break up to give them time to transition, time to find who they are in this new identity. They need time to become the butterfly.
Emma refuses to let go.
This is a story so the plot is not open for judgement (unless there are plot holes). However, Emma talks about having “sex femme” and “proper sex” during Jess’s transition. From the tone, Emma prefers “proper sex”. The narration doesn’t appear to question this labelling of forms of sex, which appears to reinforce prejudices found in the dominant discourse. I found this labelling problematic. But it gets worse.
Representation of disability: blaming autism
Batchelor largely tells us what is happening with proportionally little showing. This makes it difficult to know what is actually happening. While reading I wondered if Emma is the classic “unreliable narrator”. Is this Emma’s emotional journey and, therefore, somewhat separate from the facts? Are Emma’s assertions based on events or are they coming solely from Emma’s emotional state? Without that information, it’s difficult to know how to interpret Emma’s statements about Jess, Jess’s behavior and Jess’s neuroatypical character.
However, Emma criticizes Jess’s behavior. Emma blames Jess’s neuroatypical nature for Jess’s responses to Emma.
Batchelor explicitly states on p156:
“Today I realized that Jess and I continue to cycle because I keep asking and expecting them to behave like a neurotypical person. I can’t do that. They aren’t like other people. Plus, they are in crisis, and that seems to be exacerbating their spectrum behaviors.”
From other transitioning couples’ stories, Jess’s responses and process of transitioning seem fairly normal (for a given value of normal). Add to Jess’s transition, pursuer-distancer relationships are not uncommon, so that is another relationship issue not caused by being neuroatypical.
Representation of disability: boundaries
Jess repeatedly says they want to leave the relationship. They feel they need space to develop who they are. Emma refuses to accept Jess’s boundary, demanding support from Jess instead. Jess’s reaction – as relayed by Emma – doesn’t seem particularly atypical and, in my opinion, does not justify Emma’s ableist judgements.
Emma’s assertion that Jess is broken because of being neuroatypical is offensive. Her assertion that Jess should be meeting Emma’s needs after Jess has repeatedly said they want to leave the relationship is problematic. Emma doesn’t appear to have an epiphany as part of the healing process either, so this novel reinforces the dominant discourse.
This story could have been written without mentioning autism and certainly without blaming autism for their problems. Neuroatypical people transition; it may be more difficult for people on the spectrum, I don’t know. However, I posit that neuroatypical people’s biggest problem is other people saying they’re broken, refusing to accept their boundaries and gaslighting them.
There are so few representations of disability in literature. To read another representation that feeds the dominant discourse’s existing prejudice was triggering for me.
Emma talks about her mental health and what I think she referred to as a breakdown. She won’t process her grief because she’s too busy trying to enforce the relationship despite Jess repeatedly saying they want to break up.
Emma has two mental healthcare plans in one year. On the one hand, yay for getting help. On the other hand, my GP said I can have a total of 6 visits on a healthcare plan over the course of once calendar year (physio, podiatrist, dietitian, you name it; pick 6 sessions total). Therefore I suspect the 2 healthcare plans in one year is part of the “fiction” part of the story. Although Now That I See You is marketed as autofiction (autobiographical fiction), readers need to beware of taking it at face value.
Emma isolates herself at first while trying to hide Jess’s transitioning process and trying to enforce the relationship. Later Emma gets help, which is a laudable step. Getting help is definitely something affected readers should emulate.
If you’re feeling depressed you can contact Beyond Blue (Australia) and this website has contact information if you’re in the USA. If you’re living elsewhere, try googling “depression get help” or something similar.
Jess is silenced
Normal story writing rules do not apply to memoirs. While Now That I See You is not marketed as a memoir, it is marketed as “autofiction” so similar rules apply. The format of Now That I See You is part narration, part email exchange with Jess and part journal-style writing. Fiction has long used this blend of styles in narration; from memory The Guy Next Door by Meg Cabot is one such novel.
However, unlike other books, Emma silences Jess by omitting their side of the story and their emails. A Marion Keyes novel is similar to this in style, including voice mail messages and emails without answer but – spoiler alert – that is the whole point of Anybody Out There?
Batchelor includes Jess’s point of view or thoughts a couple of times throughout the book. A couple of flashbacks show Jess wasn’t ready to move in with Emma and wasn’t happy about Emma pushing them to undertake a holiday away under the pretense of a birthday trip for Jess. The story centers Emma who, by demanding her own needs be met, robs Jess of agency. Emma blames autism for Jess not responding how Emma wishes. This is either ableism or Emma hasn’t shown Jess’s neuroatypical behaviors sufficiently to justify her comments. Either way, Batchelor’s portrayal reinforces prejudicial attitudes in the community.
Now That I See You is a Literary book for people with specific tastes; it’s not my cup of coffee. The ableism offended me. I don’t enjoy melodrama for the sake of it. The closest memoir I can think of that I enjoyed is Ruth Cracknell’s Journey from Venice, which is radically different. (And my copy is hardcover and MUCH prettier than the edition pictured at the link.)
Now That I See You won the Australian Vogel Literary Award this year. I suspect this novel will be like Dibs: In Search Of Self by Virginia M Axline where English Studies students dissect the novel to find the author/psychologist takes excessive credit for Dibs’s development. Personally I think Batchelor’s novel would have been a better story if Jess’s point of view was on display as well. Or at least give us Jess’s emails instead of just Emma’s responses to Jess’s emails.
I highly highly recommend This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel. This FICTION novel is funny, heartwarming, tear-inspiring and educational by turns. Laurie’s adopted daughter is trans so Laurie also has lived experience of being in a relationship that involves transitioning. Furthermore, Laurie has done a hell of a lot of research regarding things like whether to use hormone blockers. However, she writes the issues and offers no advice on that topic because the answer will be different for different people. Also, Laurie writes a large loving family where every member has different issues. There is nothing not to love about this novel. Having raved about that novel, now I want to re-read it.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Released: May 2021
Format: Paperback – C format, 216 pages
Category: Fiction, queer, autism, disability