Saturday 1 October 2016

Books: The high-school boy who wakes up as a girl

Young Adult: Changers Book One: Drew, T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper, Atom, pbk, 277 pages, €8.99

Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30

Provoking: Husband and wife T and Alison had written a four-part series.
Provoking: Husband and wife T and Alison had written a four-part series.
Changers Book One

As any sane person knows, teenage years are essentially hell on earth. And secondary school is hell to the power of a hundred. (I think it was Churchill who said the only people with fond memories of that time are "bullies and bores".)

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You can imagine, then, what a tough spot Ethan Miller finds himself in, at the start of Changers Book One: Drew, a new YA novel from husband-and-wife team T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper. He's 14, just moved from New York to small-town Genesis, Tennessee and is about to start high school.

And he woke up this morning to find himself transformed into a girl.

Yes, this is one of those high-concept YA novels - which, I suppose, is very many of them. Here, there exists a race of human beings, the titular Changers, who "cycle" through four different iterations of themselves, from about the ages of 14 to 18.

Ethan's dad is a Changer, his mother a Static - ie a normal person like me and (presumably) you. They try to explain what's happening to Ethan with the help of the so-called Changers' Bible and a young woman called Tracy who's gone through this already. But it's a lot to take in…

Changers may jump from male to female, and back again. These alternate versions of themselves look different, act different, have different abilities and interests…but do they remain the same person underneath?

That's one of the big questions posed by a very enjoyable, if somewhat flawed, book. Here are some others: what do concepts like sexuality and gender mean, if one's consciousness can find itself inside both genders at different times? What is identity, what is the soul, what is thought?

What makes us who we are, and separate from everyone else? And perhaps most importantly, what binds us disparate human beings together? That all sounds a bit heavy, but fear not: Changers is breezy, fast-moving, emotionally engaging, often laugh-out-loud funny. It reminded me less of other books than TV shows like Buffy or classic high school movies like Heathers - the former for its blending of supernatural/otherworldly elements with mundane domestic life, the latter for its brilliant depiction of the Darwinian jungle that is adolescence.

And Central High School is a hard place to be the new kid, especially when you've just changed sex, appearance and - as Ethan slowly comes to realise - some aspects of your personality. He's now a girl called Drew, with long blonde hair, who can't skateboard anymore, even though his/her inner Ethan still wants to.

Drew becomes best pals with sweet-natured Audrey, runs foul of the class Mean Girl, gets seriously confused by a bolt-of-lightning attraction to a guy called Chase, and generally tries to figure out who the hell he/she is now. A riotous tangle of hormones, angst, dread, anger, blood, snot and tears: like normal adolescence, then, only worse.

This is Book One of four in the Changers series - originally released in 2014 Stateside, they're now on Part Three over there - which chronicles Ethan's journey, through four versions of himself, until he reaches adulthood and settles on one for life.

That, in fact, is one of the main drawbacks with the novel. The story ends with the conclusion of Drew's first year in high school, so we're left hanging, to a certain extent, narratively speaking. Over the course of a series, that's not a problem, but taking this as one book, it feels somehow unfinished, or prematurely ended.

The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense, either, if you scrutinise it too hard. Neither do the mechanics of Changer society or the logic of this fictional world. And there's a scene of attempted rape which is so unexpected and tonally inconsistent with the rest of the book, it's jarring.

It's nothing insurmountable, though. Just go with the flow here, read your way into the story - and suspend disbelief - and you'll be pleasantly challenged, surprised, provoked and, most of all entertained.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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