Publication date: 5 June 2014
Genre: Young adult (Dystopia)
Author: Shanta Everington
Paperback: 152 pages
Publisher: Bridge House (Red Telephone Books)
Formats: Paperback and e-book (Mobi only)
Would it possible to live without gender?
Fifteen year old Jesse lives in a world where babies are born neither male nor female – Compulsory Gender Assignment is carried out at birth. Will the secret she closely guards be found out? Boyfriend Zeus, mother Ana’s Natural Souls, and new friend Ork, leader of We Are One, pull Jesse in different directions, forcing her to make her own mind up about who she really is.
“A highly original and thought-provoking dystopian novel. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it!”
Luisa Plaja, Chicklish, the UK’s Teen Fiction Site
Jesse watches through the smeared kitchen window as Randy plays football in the back garden with Zeus. Her brother's face is red and shining with perspiration and concentration as he tackles Zeus, before skidding on a muddy patch and ending up sprawled across the grass.
“Yes! Yes! Come on!!!” shouts Zeus, grinning as he punches the air, shaking droplets of sweat everywhere. He bends over laughing and then he looks up at the window, catching Jesse's eye before she looks away into the washing up bowl full of suds, feeling heat creeping across her chest.
“He's a proper teenage boy your brother, isn't he?” says Jesse's mother, Ana, smiling to herself as she hands Jesse a tea towel. “All rough and tumble. I'm so pleased for him that he has finally become himself.”
Jesse feels her shoulders tense up as she fingers the green checked cloth.
“Thanks for dinner, Mum,” she says, not meeting her mother's gaze as she starts drying the dishes. “The lasagne was lovely. I should go upstairs and do some revision once I've finished this.”
“I can teach you how to make it if you'd like?” says Ana, beaming at her daughter. “Maybe at the weekend, when you've not got so much school work to do?”
Jesse doesn't want to learn how to make lasagne. Or shepherd's pie or pasta bake. She doesn't want to learn to cook or study needlecraft or budgeting skills or any of the Female Life Skills on the syllabus. She doesn't want to play football either. She doesn't know what she wants. It was so much easier before. When she wore white and yellow and green and grey and played with trains and dolls at home, when Randy and Jesse shared everything. When they were the same. Before Ana took them to see Maya and they moved into their first flat, next door to the old man who smelled of urine. When she didn't have to pretend she'd made a decision. She feels the corners of her mouth quivering as her mother stares into her face.
“Oh Jesse, don't worry,” says her mother, rubbing her shoulders. “Your turn will come when you are ready. How are you feeling about things now, darling?”
Jesse shrugs her shoulders and tries hard to smile but somehow she can't quite manage it. Her mother takes the plate Jesse is busy drying out of her hands and places it on the scratched wooden work top.
“Don't worry, darling. I only ever want you to be happy. You've got to be ready, Jesse. Remember what happened to George.”
Jesse nods. She has heard the story of Uncle George so many times, it is etched on her brain, like a recurring nightmare.
“I think Zeus might have a crush on you,” says Randy over breakfast the next morning.
The family are in the kitchen, sitting around the big, old, oak dining table, a hand-me-down from one of Ana's friends. Most of their belongings are cast-offs. They are used to relying on the charity of others connected to Natural Souls. Ana has set the table with cereal, orange juice, toast and home-made preserves.
“Shut up,” says Jesse, spooning muesli into her mouth.
“Seriously. Didn't you notice the way he kept watching you yesterday when you came out into the garden with your tight top on? I don't think it was just your lemon ice lollies he was drooling at!”
Jesse feels her heart beating a little faster. Zeus is nice, she thinks, but nothing can happen. Zeus is one of the Nine Per Cent. He wouldn’t want her. At least not until afterwards. If she goes through with it.
“I know you like him!” continues Randy in a sing-song voice. “Don't worry, I won't tell him your secret!”
“Randy,” says Ana sharply, pouring milk into her bowl. “Don't wind your sister up before school.”
“I'm not!” protests Randy, rocking his chair backwards and stuffing toast into his mouth. “I'm just saying!”
Jesse carries on eating, feeling her cheeks burn.
Randy gets up from the table and whispers to Jesse on his way out of the kitchen, “He likes you, he likes you!”
Once her brother is out of earshot, Jesse turns to her mother.
“Mum, can I ask you a question?” she says, playing with her spoon, turning it over and over and watching her reflection morph into something grotesque.
“Anything,” says Ana.
“How old were you when you had your first boyfriend? I know it was different for you. You weren't born like us but...”
“I was fifteen,” replies Ana without hesitating. “The same age you are now. His name was Jack. He was a friend of my brother's too. He was born like you but he was a boy by the time I met him. It didn't last, of course.”
“You mean why didn't it last?” asks Ana, absent-mindedly picking crumbs up off the table. “We were just kids. First love. It wasn't even love. When George died, well... Jack's family moved away. It's just as well or I wouldn't have met your father and there would have been no Randy or Jesse.”
She looks up at Jesse with a bright smile. Sometimes Jesse wonders what lies beneath her mother's happy face.
“I wish Dad was here,” says Jesse. “I wish he hadn't left us.”
“I know, darling, but we have to be strong for one another. Think about what I said about seeing Maya again soon. Now, you don't want to be late for school, do you?”
Jesse gets up and takes her plates to the sink before grabbing her school bag and heading over to school. Today she has history, biology, religious education and sex education. It will not be a good day. Her bag weighs heavily on her shoulder. She thinks about the text books it contains and what they are teaching her.
“Ah, Jesse, so glad you could join us,” says Mr Hope as she slips into her biology class five minutes late, after a last minute visit to the toilets to make sure she looks right.
“Sorry, sir,” comes her feeble reply. She feels her school dress stick to her back as she finally removes the heavy bag and sits down at her desk.
Jesse looks around the classroom at the other girls. Debra Simmonds is painting her fingernails under the desk. But she isn't like Debra, is she? All the boys want Debra because everyone knows that Debra was born pure. She is one of the Nine Per Cent like Zeus. Jesse isn’t like Debra. She isn’t like the other girls, either. The assigned girls. What if they find out what she is? She wonders how Randy is getting on over at the boys' school. It is all right for him, now he's had the operation. But Jesse is scared. She doesn't know if she can go through with it.
Artemis smiles at her, through her spidery black fringe. They weren't friends before. But since Randy started going out with her it seems that Artemis wants to hang around with Jesse all day.
“Everybody turn to page one hundred, please,” instructs Mr Hope.
Jesse knows what is on that page and she doesn't want to look at it. The human reproductive system. But she has to. It is the same in the other classes; lessons all tell her she is wrong. Her mother is wrong. She wishes it had been done to her when she was born, like everyone else. Why did her mother make her have to choose when?
“Hi,” says Artemis, as they walk to the lunch hall.
Chairs scrape along the floor and the cutlery clatters. The air thick with the smell of over cooked food and teenage hormones. Jesse isn't hungry, not after looking at those diagrams all morning.
“Randy says Zeus likes you,” says Artemis, flicking back her long, black hair as they queue up for their food.
Jesse can see four tiny holes in Artemis's earlobe, where she has taken her studs out for school.
“I dunno about that,” mumbles Jesse, wishing she could be on her own again, as usual. She normally avoids conversation whenever she can, sits in the corner gulping down her lunch, pretending to read a magazine, flicking idly over the fashion pages full of celebrities that all look the same and scanning the problem pages to see if there is ever a question from anyone like her. But there never is.
“No, he really does, he told Randy and everything. He wants to go out with you. I know he looks confident and everything but he's really quite shy. So, he's sort of asked Randy to ask me to ask you out for him!”
Jesse freezes as the dinner lady with luminous blue eye shadow spoons vegetable curry onto her plate.
“Don't you like him?” persists Artemis, grabbing an orange juice and passing one to Jesse.
Jesse shrugs and picks up her cutlery.
“He's gorgeous and really clever. What's not to like?”
“Maybe I'm just not ready for a boyfriend,” says Jesse, as Artemis follows her to her usual table in the corner and sits down.
“Oh, I get it,” says Artemis, waving her hands about. “You're scared! You're scared about having your first boyfriend. What, have you never kissed a boy before or something?”
Jesse bites her lip and slowly shakes her head.
“What, never?” asks Artemis, holding her spoon mid-air. “Not even with mouths closed? What about at the youth club disco? Come to think of it, I never saw you dance with anyone. Gosh, girl, I've got some work to do with you! Stick with Auntie Artemis and I'll soon have you coming out of your shell. I like a challenge.”
Artemis beams at Jesse as she tucks into a piece of naan bread. Jesse smiles and picks at hers. It would be good to have someone to talk to. She can see why Randy likes being around Artemis. She's bubbly and warm and seems to know what to do. Randy was inexperienced like her before Artemis but now look at him.
“You're right,” says Jesse. “I am scared.”
But not for the reasons Artemis thinks. She must never find out the truth.
Shanta Everington is the author of seven books, including three young adult novels – Give Me a Sign, Boy Red and latest release XY (joint winner of the Red Telephone Books YA Novel Competition). She has had all sorts of jobs in the past, from baking vegan muffins and working as a private tutor to appearing as a guest agony aunt and running a teen sexual health helpline. With an MA in Creative Writing with distinction, Shanta currently teaches Creative Writing with The Open University. She lives in London, UK, with her husband and two children.
Publisher website: http://www.trtpublishing.co.uk/xy.html
Author website: www.shantaeverington.co.uk
Amazon USA: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00L1P1RPU
Goodreads page: www.goodreads.com/author/show/1419856.Shanta_Everington