by Sophie Bouchard
À l’étage, 2017
Never judge a book by its cover, goes the saying. Though you’d be forgiven for doing so with Jeanne, by Sophie Bouchard, as the artwork and layout seem remarkably evocative of the story that lies between these covers. For there is more to Jean, a solid, dependable father of two, than meets the eye.
By all appearances, Jean is a jack of all trades, a man’s man who gets things done.
“I’m a man of my word. My vows are sacred. I don’t make empty promises. […] I’m the kind of guy you ask for a favour. The guy you can ask to do anything, because you know I’ll do it right. The guy who’ll help you move. The guy who’ll chop your wood. The guy who’ll fix your chainsaw. The guy who’ll build your shed. The guy who’ll dig up tree stumps. The guy who’ll take an engine apart for you, change car tires, and do oil changes at home. I’ll offer to help with anything. That’s just the way I am.”
Yet Jean has harboured a secret his whole life. He’s not the man his mother raised him to be. And he’s not the man his hockey and sports-bar drinking buddies think he is. Nor is he the man his wife Doris married. Beneath the rugged surface, Jean is a woman. Jean is Jeanne, and deep down inside he always has been. It’s clear to see on the cover of this book: the title Jeanne is laid out over two lines, the “ne” below the “Jean” negating the narrator’s masculinity in a simple line break. If only revealing her transsexuality could be so clear-cut for Jeanne.
As the urge grows to reveal her true identity to those she loves, Jeanne musters courage. It’s a gradual and painful process, as the staccato sentence structure in the early pages suggests.
“I feel like I’ve reached the end of my tether. There’s a huge wall to scale in front of me. Everyday tasks loom like mountains. […] Choosing between two pairs of socks is beyond me. Everything feels so huge. Immense. Daunting. […] Ultimately, I’ve made my decision. I have no intention of living a minute longer in such a dreary life. Clearly, it belongs to someone else. I’ve spent too much time being blinkered. I have to take action to find some semblance of calm.”
In such delicate matters, however, the storm comes before the calm. Biting the bullet during a dinner at home with friends, Jeanne makes her grand appearance by clip-clopping downstairs from a bathroom break in heels, all dolled up in Doris’s new dress and makeup. Predictably, this is not well received by Jean’s family and friends.
“Our friends, sensing the gravity of the moment, make their excuses and leave without eating. The question marks are written all over their faces. They hadn’t seen this coming either. No one could have dreamed I’d be transsexual. I’m the last person they’d have suspected.”
In the wake of that fateful evening, denial hastily leads to departure, alienation, and divided loyalties. While the story unfolds somewhat predictably from that point, leading the reader through Jeanne’s trials and tribulations at work and in her personal life as she explores her identity, there’s a certain authenticity—and lack of sugar-coating—to the narration. With transgender and transsexual issues increasingly in the media spotlight, Jeanne makes for an entertaining read likely to open many readers’ eyes to the challenges faced by those who are emerging.