Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 18, 2021

Now That I See You, by Emma Batchelor (2021 Vogel winner)

If anything in this review raises issues for you, help is available at Beyond Blue.


Sometimes, when we enter into a relationship, we don’t really understand that it will change us in ways we didn’t expect.  New parents, for example, at first often don’t fully realise that they haven’t just had to change their lifestyle, but that having a child changes them and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives.  Most of these transformations are No Big Deal; they are the stuff of ordinary life.  Others are more difficult: Amanda Lohrey’s novel Labyrinth, for example, explores the impact on the mother of a man who has committed a heinous crime.  She is devastated by what he did to his victims, yet she still loves him so she wants to support him through his guilt and shame and anguish.  But her life is ruined too, and she has to change her ways of thinking and behaving.  That journey to find some solace is depicted with great empathy, (and the novel has just been shortlisted for the 2021 Miles Franklin Award).

But what if the relationship that brings you joy and comfort and a sense of security alters beyond recognition and makes demands of you that you struggle to adapt to?  That alters everything, that challenges your own sense of self?  In a stunning work of autofiction, ACT author Emma Batchelor has won the 2021 Vogel Prize with her novel Now That I See You, which traces her own real-life journey to come to terms with her partner’s transition from male to female.

Without diminishing the intensity of the transition process for the person undertaking it, what the novel shows is that this transition is very difficult for everyone in the circle of lovers, family and friends.  No one can have sole ownership of its implications.

Narrated in the first-person, the journey is scaffolded through Emma’s journals, emails and letters in a collage of three parts: Us (Discovery; and Aftershock); Them (Build-up; Suspension; and After); and Me (Now; and Possibility).  Each of these three parts begins by revisiting in the third person the earlier stages of their relationship—the awkwardness of first meeting, negotiating those precious first  moments of intimacy and learning to be a couple. Emma and Jess have been together for six years, but the story tells how over 18 months from Jess’s disclosure to transition, the relationship crumbles under the strain and impacts on the mental health of them both.

Emma, who works in theatre management, is almost thirty, and contented in her relationship with Jess.  They share many interests in common, and they are buying a home together.  And then there is an awkwardness between them, and small signs that something is different.  When Jess finally articulates that he feels more comfortable in women’s clothing, Emma thinks she can accommodate this, and they have fun together in private at home.  She shares her clothes and teaches him how to do make-up and how to paint his nails.  She realises that she needs to educate herself about this situation and invests a lot of time in reading up about what it might mean for both of them.  But because he isn’t ready to tell anyone else, it has to be a secret, and it’s not in Emma’s nature to be secretive.  It’s hard for her when she can’t explore with anyone else the doubts she has about herself and how she is handling the discovery that he is not who she thought he was.  And she begins to grieve for the future that isn’t going to be what she expected.

What makes everything harder for her is that she loves him and that she wants to maintain the relationship.  She wants to be his lover and his companion in whatever the future brings.  But he is struggling with decisions and uncertainties too, and neither of them know how to manage the disintegration of their relationship without hurting the other.

It’s hard to read a story so raw and emotional, yet I could not put it down.  Although the author has been careful to avoid telling Jess’s story, one can’t help feeling their mutual pain.  I found myself wondering at Emma’s ability to keep going at work when her mental health was at breaking point.  And yet there’s a cautious sense of optimism that young people are so much more open to gender fluidity and transitions than previous generations have been, and the raw honesty of this book can only help to raise awareness  about it.

There are funny moments too.  Emma gets herself in a tangle with pronouns, and her weakness for animals leads to Mrs Rat doing some persistent nest-building in the garden with predictable results.  Like the author in real life, she is fixated on clothes, especially vintage fashion, and she self-medicates with chilli hot chocolate.  For all her flaws, about which she is ruthlessly open, she is an engaging character.

Now That I See You could have been a painfully narcissistic work, but it’s not.  As Vogel judge Stephen Romei says in the press release, the novel is…

…a masterclass in exploring why and how we become who we are and what that means for the people closest to us.  This is a novel about love—of others and of self—and wants and needs and urges.  The lovers at its centre have their own particular challenges, but deep down they could be any couple.

Author:  Emma Batchelor
Title: Now That I See You
Cover artwork: Oda Valle, design by Sandy Cull
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781760879761, pbk., 206 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

 


Responses

  1. I think I would enjoy this book. A lot of important issues that seem quite current in today’s world.

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  2. This sounds very much like Alexandra Heminsley’s Some Body to Love which is a non-fiction account of her husband transitioning to become a woman. I have heard good things about that book from friends in the UK but not read it myself. Maggie Nelson’s non-fiction book The Argonauts charts similiar territory. It’s interesting that Batchelor has chosen to fictionalise her work; perhaps that “distance” made it easier to write, do you think?

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    • That I don’t know, but I am reminded of something Ros Collins said about Rosa, Memories with Licence… fictionalising it gives the freedom to make things turn out differently, to make the protagonists behave better than they really did, and ironically to change parts of a personal history to make them more realistic.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Straight on the list!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have a copy of this for review, just haven’t yet gotten to it. Love this review and it makes me look forward to it even more.

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  5. Sounds like a really powerful and thought-provoking book, and it’s impossible to know how something like this would affect you. I believe, for example, when Jan Morris transitioned from her previous identity as James, she stayed with her life partner although at the time they were not allowed to stay married. I think if you love a person deeply, that love *can* survive such change.

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    • But conversely, it’s also true that (in any relationship context) that the supporting partner will inevitably ‘fail’ the one with the issue. At some point (maybe only briefly) the pain it’s causing the supporting partner will surface at a moment when the partner with the issue is at a low point and not able to accept that they’re not the only person hurting. That’s when ‘my pain trumps your pain’ / ‘no it doesn’t, it doesn’t just affect you’ explodes.
      These moments are rarely forgotten. It takes a lot of maturity to deal with it.

      Liked by 1 person


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