There are two things I immediately loved while reading Rosie Garland’s novel “The Night Brother”. Firstly, it’s a cosmopolitan story set at the beginning of the 20th century in Manchester. Most Victorian-set novels that depict a city only focus on London so it’s refreshing to see an alternative urban environment in a British historical novel with lots of Manchester-specific locations and events included. Secondly, this novel takes such a disarmingly unique perspective on gender and identity through its beautifully creative premise. The story follows the early life and young adulthood of Edie who lives her daily life as a woman, but at night physically transforms into a man. Herbert (who calls himself Gnome) emerges at night with a consciousness and identity which is almost entirely separate from Edie’s. At first Edie thinks of him as a brother, but gradually comes to understand that they are two parts of a whole person. This is a condition she’s inherited from her mother and grandmother who have very different opinions about this secret state of being. The novel follows the dual narratives of Edie and Gnome as they grapple over the years to share a body and navigate through society hiding the shocking reality of their situation. It’s a fascinatingly thoughtful, emotional and thrilling story that takes the reader through the emerging suffragette movement and underground queer meeting spots of turn of the century Manchester.
One of my favourite things about fiction is that it can take us entirely out of the bounds of reality in a way that can help us get a different perspective on ordinary life. So many of our ideas and conceptions about who we are and what makes a woman/man are ingrained in the way we think and live every day. This novel shows a recognizable “other” reality where there is a case of someone who inhabits both womanhood and manhood, but Edie feels terrified to reveal this secret for fear of being persecuted and ostracised. One of the ways Garland does this so powerfully is to show the internalized phobias within her family. Edie’s mother Cissy has the same condition of being both a woman and man. She unambiguously prefers her son Gnome to her daughter Edie. Nothing Edie does endears her to her mother leading her to feel “Of all the tasks I set myself, it was to make Ma love me. I have failed.” This relationship really hit home for me. As someone who came out as gay quite young, I painfully experienced this sense of failure and the feeling of being rejected simply for being who I am. My mother also encouraged me to publicly hide my homosexuality at school in order to avoid being shamed. Although this novel brought up many personal memories, the way in which Garland tenderly presents this complicated mother/daughter/son relationship touches upon so many universal feelings of acceptance/rejection between many different kinds of parents and children.
One of the beautiful ways in which Garland demonstrates how someone can find acceptance in the greater world if they can’t find it at home is by showing Edie’s discovery of the library. Edie takes numerous trips to the Manchester Free Library and comes to this independently-minded position: “So what if my life constrains me, tighter than the baskets in which hens are brought to market. This story has lifted me into the heaven of the imagination.” It’s very touching how Edie comes to appreciate novels and storytelling as both a way of escaping the drudgery of her present circumstances and of gaining better insight into her own identity. In the course of reading books and looking at paintings she sees a depiction of someone she identifies as a “Thracians” or someone who treads the border between being a man and woman. This is a moving way to root Edie’s condition in a hidden historical tradition which she has the potential to uncover. Although she feels alienated and alone, it’s possible that there are many other people who share her condition and similarly feel the need to publicly hide it. This kind of knowledge and shared history is the first step any persecuted minority group must take to group together to promote visibility and acceptance in society.
Naturally Edie/Gnome’s condition playfully probes questions of the meaning and nature of gender. Edie is subjected to the pervy attention of men at the pub her mother runs. This combined with the harsh way Cissy treats her makes Edie quite delicate and shy: “I grow into a swallowed voice of a girl. I speak when I am spoken to and often not even then.” However, Gnome’s evening wanderings draw him to other groups of boys where he develops a very competitive streak and he becomes boastful/arrogant with women he fancies. He feels that “In this life, you’re either a ginger tom swaggering the streets or a cowering kitten that gets trampled underfoot.” Garland demonstrates the way gender alters how a single individual is treated within society and consequently certain different behavioural traits emerge for Edie and Gnome. The story also shows how Edie learns to challenge and embrace change alongside the lesbian relationship she develops, but Gnome takes a reactionary stance and mocks the emergence of feminism. Edie’s unique position allows her to see beyond the constraints of gendered behaviour and she strives to be an individual who can embody aspects of femininity and masculinity: “Now that I have the choice, it strikes me that I don’t want to be the same, not in that way, which seems to be trading one shackle for another. I want liberation, not verisimilitude. The two are entirely different.”
“The Night Brother” feels like such a clever way of dramatically describing the changes in consciousness happening in society at the turn of the 20th century. Gradually liberation movements like the suffragettes were emerging to challenge traditional social constraints based on gender and sexuality. Since the character of Edie/Gnome is forced to live as both genders she/he becomes a kind of utopian vision of how we can exist on many different lines of the gender spectrum at once. At one point Edie’s grandmother says that “Nature is far more adventurous than we credit.” I admire the way that this novel shows that individuals are infinitely more complex than simply being any one thing that society would categorize them as. More than all the compelling ideas that this novel contains, it’s also an engrossing tale with lots of tense moments, revelations and a poignant love story.