If I were to reduce this novel to a single line, it would be: ‘Boy meets boy, but when boy becomes girl, can love survive?’ This is the essential plot of Bellies, but that would be doing this complex novel a real disservice, the relationships aren’t as straightforward as that suggests. We follow the lives of a small group of friends who meet as students, and the relationships they form – of all kinds – as they move into navigating the world beyond uni. It’s also about family, acceptance and them being there for you – or not. We see this all through the eyes of Tom and Ming, who generally alternate as narrators through the chapters.
Tom tells how they meet at a party, both dressed in drag – Tom uncomfortably, Ming obviously perfectly at home. Tom falls for Ming from the start, his first proper boyfriend since he came out. Ming is a playwright, and tends to skip lectures; Tom goes to his and has a job in banking lined up for graduation. They’re opposites but opposites attract and both sets of parents adore their son’s partner, although Ming says teasingly of Tom’s folks,
his family are middle-class Camberwell gentrifiers who worship at the church of Ottolenghi and knitted alpaca cardigans.
That made me giggle. Ming being Malaysian, his father and partner Cindy (Ming’s mother died years before), are very different, Ming’s dad still calls him Michael, Cindy is a bundle of fun.
However, Ming is having problems. He tells Tom about his OCD, about his feelings that he is not happy in his body, that he wants to transition. Tom is both devastated and totally supportive of Ming’s decision, as are their friends, Cass, Sarah, Lisa and Rob, the latter being Tom’s best friend. Ming wonders how it may affect Tom:
Michael could be what Tom needs. After I came out, I began to see that maybe Tom loved Michael instead, and the question for us was not where Ming would go, but how much of Michael would stay.
At this point we’re about halfway through the novel, and I won’t tell you how it pans out, other than we’ll be on the relationship roller-coaster with our two young adults and their friends. As you might imagine, this is a very bittersweet novel – Sally Rooney fans will love it. There is tenderness and heart-break, anger and misunderstandings, and much vulnerability as the novel’s title suggests. Making Ming Malaysian also adds another layer of complexity, for she won’t be welcome back in her homeland after transition.
In between, there is a lot of fun, but there are also so many drugs, each pill and snort detailed, which seems to be a feature of not just this novel, but all the stories of twenty-somethings finding their way in London I’ve encountered recently, and I do find that rather tedious (showing my age somewhat maybe).
That’s not taking away from the quality of Dinan’s writing which is super. She captures Tom and Ming’s emotions perfectly in their alternating narration, but also in how they think about each other. Although you might expect the story of Ming’s transition to dominate, Dinan achieves a humane balance between that and how it affects Tom, laying bare all the complexity of modern relationships. My drugs niggle aside, this is a really strong debut which I enjoyed a lot, and it’ll be interesting to see what she does next.
Source: Review copy – thank you. Doubleday hardback, 322 pages.
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