Nicola Dinan’s debut novel is the best kind of queer love story: not a dramatic tragedy but an expansive exploration of intimacy, desire and queer family-making. Dinan refuses to adhere to the expected beats of mainstream narratives about straight relationships, but she also also brashly and bravely rejects the standards of moral perfection that queer and transgender characters in fiction are too often required to live up to. Instead, she honors what is uncomfortable and hard about trans life right alongside what is sacred.
Tom and Ming meet in their early 20s at a drag show put on by their university and immediately hit it off. Tom is a white Brit whose good-natured cheerfulness masks his insecurity. Ming is an aspiring playwright who has come to England from Malaysia; her mother died when she was a teenager, and she’s still looking for a place or a group of people that feel like home. Tom and Ming fall in love easily, but their relationship is thrown into turmoil when Ming decides to transition. The narrative switches between their two perspectives as they navigate their changing relationships to each other and to themselves.
Ming finds freedom, relief and joy in finally being herself, but being a nonwhite trans woman in the U.K. also brings new challenges. Tom struggles to accept that while his love for Ming hasn’t changed, his desire for her has. They are both grieving imagined versions of themselves and their futures. This kind of heartbreak, which is as much a part of queer and trans life as anything else, is not something that queer fiction often makes space for.
Bellies is fraught with all the messes of growing up and into identity. Dinan’s prose is fresh and immediate and full of tension. There’s drunken revelry, heart-pounding fights, tender moments between lovers, strained long-distance phone calls with family and awkward support group meetings. Every page of this novel feels alive and thrumming; even the introspective sections have a momentum that pulls the reader along. Ming, Tom and their group of friends have quirks and flaws that make them immediately recognizable. They are selfish and petty, confused and clueless, loving and impatient. Sometimes they love one another generously, but sometimes they fail to love one another at all.
This is a vulnerable, moving, riotously funny and deeply honest book about trans life, first love, art-making, friendship, grief and the hard, slow process of building a home—in a new country, with another person and inside yourself. Bellies celebrates a hundred different kinds of transformation and, like the very best novels, has the power to transform its readers in unexpected ways.