Hello readers! McAlli here to tell you that the third time is a charm and I finally (finally!) have a book that I can recommend you read! Today, I’m going to tell you about Chained Melodies, by Debrah Martin.
Chained Melodies is the story of two intertwined characters, Tom and Billie, following their journey through life as they grow and discover who they are. Tom struggles with the harmful expectations of masculinity and Billie, known through the beginning of the story as “Will”, discovers her identity as a trans woman.
Set dominantly in the 1980s, this isn’t a fantasy or sci-fi, which means it’s not in the genre I particularly enjoy. Usually this means the book would be a struggle for me to get through, bored of the real-world situations and settings. However, this book was a pleasant surprise. I remember sitting down at one point and saying to myself “Okay, I’m going to read 40 pages today.” And then suddenly I was 10 pages away from the end, threw up my hands, and just finished it. I finished it because I wasn’t going to wonder about the last bit of the story, I wanted it right that moment, via osmosis immediately.
So, in short: Chained Melodies was a good book.
Unfortunately, I have a lot more to say when I hate a book than when I enjoy it. That’s just how being an amateur book critic works, I guess. But I can say that the excellent prose carried this book. Martin has an amazing voice, and her wordplay and structure literally make this book as good as it is. The whole thing flows from start to finish, annihilating the passage of time as you read (which is how I got through 100+ pages without even considering how far I’d read). There is very little to jar the reader out of the story, and there was more than one place where I actively teared up and had to sit back. I wasn’t even bothered by the fact that it was in First Person, a tense that often turns me off within three sentences.
The story is pretty solid. Most of it is interpersonal, within the characters. The chapters leapfrog, with one being Tom narrating, and the next being entries from Billie’s diary. It starts when they are children and ends when they are middle-aged, but they are separated for a vast majority of that time.
Tom’s chapters are in interesting exploration of the expectations of toxic masculinity – the expectations of strength, of enlisting in the army and going to war, of getting married, having children and supporting them by any means necessary. But Tom finds that he hates war, that the violence of his youth, of schoolyard fights, is not the same as killing other men. He finds, on his wedding night, that he does not love his new wife and only married her because that’s what men do. He finds that he has no desire to have children, despite the persistent pressure from his wife. Basically everything that Tom tries to do, he finds that those expectations make him unhappy, and everything seems to go wrong. While I wouldn’t consider Tom to be a particularly likeable character, I felt for him often throughout the story. I do wish, however, that we could have avoided the nagging, screaming, childish wife trope – as Lucy is the epitome of that to the point of breaking realism.
Billie’s chapters were more difficult to read because the diary entries are presented completely in italics. At first, they are just diary entries, but as the book progresses, they morph into a more chapter-like format instead. I feel like Martin didn’t quite think the journal thing through, because most people don’t write in their journals in perfect prose. Billie, still living as Will, goes off to the university and explores life that way – including her own gender and sexuality. I enjoyed reading about Billie’s exploration process, especially once she learned about being transgender from another trans woman (Suzanne). My only problem is that, from my point of view, Billie is Demisexual. She shows no sexual attraction to anyone, man or woman or other, and no romantic inclination at all…except towards Tom. For a book that was about a trans woman’s journey, I wish there could have some more exploration of that sexuality facet, if not just because that is something she struggled with. That particular question was never resolved.
The book touches upon a lot of upsetting topics – the emotional struggle to find one’s identity, as well as the decision to go against the grain and be who you are despite the horrible situations. Billie’s experiences are both heartbreaking and empowering – and in different ways, so are Tom’s. Both experience the toxicity that comes with harsh gender roles and expectations, and the two of them come together to find comfort.
My only legitimate complaint is the ending. Spoiler alerts (highlight to read) – Lucy dies in a freak accident, suddenly, and Tom is sent to prison for her murder. Then Billie is struck by a car and almost dies. All of this seemed unnecessary. It wasn’t a story in which the reader expects that someone will die, and deaths previous to this (Tom’s war buddies and Suzanne) are meaningful, they have huge impacts on the characters and the reader. But Lucy’s death, coming out of left field and only serving to lengthen the book for another chapter or two, holds no weight beyond “I want you to think this story is going to end in tragedy”. And that wasn’t something this story needed. Tom and Billie didn’t need to be separated for nine years, Lucy didn’t need to die, Tom didn’t need to go to prison, and Billie didn’t need to be paralyzed on one side for the rest of her life. It was all unnecessary drama and the book would have been better without it (in my opinion, of course). End Spoilers
Overall, the Final Verdict: Read it!