Adolescent angst reaches a whole new level after a sexual assault forces intersex Max (who has equal numbers of female and male chromosomes) to rethink his identity.
British writer Tartellin’s U.S. debut takes a mainstream approach to the sensitive issue of intersex individuals, previously called hermaphrodites, whose physical makeup straddles the gender divide. Golden boy Max Walker, the older child of a high-profile English family, and a popular, attractive, successful, all-around likable 15-year-old, is one. But Max, who appears to be male but has female as well as male genitalia, is raped by a family friend in the book’s opening pages, and the rest of the novel traces the impact of this event on him, his family and others. The narrative is shared amongst several voices, including Max’s younger brother, his mother, who has always felt guilty about Max, his well-meaning but busy father, his girlfriend and his sympathetic doctor. While Max struggles miserably to understand himself and his future better, the reader learns a lot about the treatment and options for intersex people. Tartellin’s writing is heavy on emotions and introspection but not especially incisive, relying instead on movement among the one-dimensional characters to sustain the simple plot.
This lengthy coming-of-age story spliced with “issues” trades on empathy rather than strong storytelling and seems pitched at a younger readership.