Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

42202063Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is a contemporary story following Nima Kumara-Clark, a biracial Sri Lankan lesbian, as she learns the benefits of going out of her comfort zone through the local drag scene.

I have read a lot of queer books, but none of them prominently featured drag performers. In this novel, the main character, the love interest, and various side characters have been drag performers at some point. With every year we get more YA books about so many different sides of the queer experience, and I’m so glad that’s the case.

This novel has a slice-of-life feel to it. It’s slow-paced, it’s kind of open-ended on some sides, and more than everything, it’s messy. But the messiness is one of its strengths, in a way, and while me and Nima didn’t have a lot in common, I could definitely understand her. She’s awkward, she makes a lot of bad decisions, she is… imperfect in so many ways, and I loved her for that. If you’re the kind of person who needs teen girls to be perfect, I really don’t recommend this, because Nima makes so many mistakes. As teens do.

I especially liked seeing how insecure she was, how she felt what I call “queer imposter syndrome”, because there are moments in which she sees herself as far too bland to even have the right to interact with other queer people. (By the way: answering that your hobby is reading and, when asked for more details, saying that your hobby is reading novels is something I’ve done. It’s what people who have been mocked for their “boring/weird” hobbies or have this specific insecurity would do. Being vague is a shield.)
Also:

Maybe I was assuming too much. I could be making up any interest on her part. Why in the world would she be interested in me? She was probably just being friendly. She seemed really friendly.

Nima is such an awkward lesbian icon. I love her, and I loved her narrative voice, for the most part – but if you plan to go into this, keep in mind that it’s often overdramatic. To make a few examples of weird, emphatic figures of speech in her narration:

“I swallowed my heart back into my chest”
“my heart played hopscotch around my chest”
“her teeth took up her entire face”
 (…what)
“I had a whole mob of butterflies flapping around in my stomach”
“made my heartbeat quicken until I thought she might actually be able to see it through my chest”
“I could feel a heart attack coming on”
“I woke up feeling like someone was making scrambled eggs in my stomach”

And more. It got distracting at times, especially since I don’t love this kind of writing, but for Nima’s personality, it made sense. But my personal favorite was this one:

That was pee-your-pants kind of nervous. This—this was shit-your-pants kind of nervous

As you can see, she’s a poet, and has such a way with words. But, surprisingly, all of this ended up feeling endearing more than annoying.

As I said before, I saw this book as slice-of-life. I say this because a few aspects of this could feel lacking in closure, but I don’t necessarily agree. This is Nima’s story, what her mom is doing isn’t relevant to her – realizing that it isn’t relevant to her is one of the plot points. And I liked Gordon’s storyline. He’s a side character who has a lot of internalized queerphobia and is struggling because of toxic masculinity, but who is also dealing with bodily dysphoria – and it’s implied that he might be trans, even though by the end of the book he’s either still figuring himself out or not ready to come out to people. In any case, it wasn’t Nima’s business: what mattered, what gave closure to the storyline to me, is that by the end they were friends again.
In a way, the ending felt more like a hopeful beginning than an ending, and I really liked that about it. It reminded me a bit of The Gallery of Unfinished Girls: the book might have ended here, but Nima and her friends have a whole life ahead of them. Because of this, and because of how messy this book was, everything felt more real to me.

However, while the drag queen Deirdre is unambiguously a black trans woman, I would have loved if this book had used the word trans even just once. For something that is named Kings, Queens and In-Betweens, this book was surprisingly binarist at times, by not acknowledging non-binary trans people explicitly and using some binarist phrasings here and there.

Another thing I didn’t love was the writing, and not for Nima’s awkward metaphors, but because of the complete lack of atmosphere or sense of setting. I know she’s supposed to live in boringland, but I had no idea how anything looked like.
I also had mixed feelings about the romance: the love interest, Winnow (who is biracial Japanese), is one of the less developed characters, and there’s a significant age gap (3-4 years I think) that didn’t make that much sense to me, especially considering that Nima reads even younger than her age at times. But as this book doesn’t really focus on it – the romance is more of a motivation for Nima to get into the drag scene, in a way – it didn’t bother me too much (…maybe because I’ve read a book with a truly uncomfortable and weird age gap a week ago and this is nothing confronted with that? I don’t know.)

My rating: ★★★★

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