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.