CW: racism, sex work, graphic sex scenes, surgery, and gender dysphoria
All at once, this book was made for me but also not. It was a hard book for me to read and rate. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it, so welcome to me rambling about the book.
While reading this, I was under a lot of stress. (Still am stressed but a lot less than I was.) When I’m stressed, I don’t always pay attention to books I’m reading. I just, well, can’t focus. And this book takes a lot of focus to read. I couldn’t dedicate my mind to it as much as it deserved. So, this is kind of on me.
So, what is this book about?
It’s told in two ways. One through the actual story of Jack Sheppard and Bess, a thief and a sex worker in 18th century England. The other through Dr. Voth, a college professor. Dr. Voth finds a manuscript in the library and takes it home, reading it and finding that it’s another work about Jack Sheppard, an infamous thief. But, this document isn’t like the others. Like Dr. Voth, Jack Sheppard is a transman. And his accomplice (usually a man) is an Indian or South East Asian sex worker.
Obviously, it’s super diverse right off the bat. Even better, it’s ownvoices. Rosenberg is a transman writing a story with two transmale MCs. I mean, that’s amazing. I’ve talked about it before, but transmen get forgotten. We’re the invisible ones in the world. It’s not always bad, but it’s hard when you’re trying to find a role model.
Dr. Voth tells his story — both his life story as a transman and his journey annotating this work — through footnotes. Now, I don’t like footnotes in fiction stories. I can barely tolerate them in nonfiction. Footnotes annoy me because they pull me out of the story in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. I can handle footnotes that are one word or a quick sentence, but the ones in this book can be pages long. I think I counted three pages one time. And I hated that. So, not only was I stressed, but I was reading a story told in a way that pulls me out of the story.
It was also hard to read because Jack Sheppard’s story is written in 18th century English. Not easy to read at all, although it was easier to keep track of when there were no footnotes.
This is also a very literary story. Dear Rosenberg is a professor of 18th-century literature and queer/trans theory. That’s what this book is largely about, too. I found it overwhelming because I don’t have any expertise. I actually recommended this book to my friend who studied queer/gender theory because I thought she might get more out of the story than I did. As a layman, it was overwhelming, though. A lot of it went over my head, admittedly.
I also wasn’t crazy about the ending, although how much I liked the message.
And that’s what it comes down to. I love the message but not the carry-out. I want to own the book to reread it at my leisure later, but the message is amazing.
I actually texted myself something I thought of while I was reading the ending. And the ending got me a bit emotional, at least from Dr. Voth’s perspective. Jack’s, I wasn’t crazy about, but I liked what Dr. Voth got out of the story because it was what I thought of.
But, here’s what I texted myself:
We are here. We have always been here. It is you who have denied our existence and our humanity. But we have always been here. We have always been normal.
Throughout history, queer and non-white stories have been suppressed and denied. As a transman, it’s like I’m some “new” and “radical” thing when, really, people AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) but don’t fit the “normal” gender roles have always been there. I wouldn’t exactly call them transmen, but people who feel more comfortable in male roles have always been around. Same with non-white people.
And that’s what this book is about at its heart. We have always been here. It’s just that the masses have tried ignoring us.
In short, this book was one I thought I would love and give five stars to. But, due to life circumstances, the way the story was told, and the direction the story took, I didn’t love it. However, I think that if you want to read a very affirming ownvoices story about transmen throughout history, I highly suggest it.
What’s your favorite book that features a trans and/or POC MC?