Some of what happens in What We Left Behind by Robin Talley (MIRA Ink, 2015) is part of the universal teenage experience; leaving home, trying to sustain a long-distance relationship, grappling with your own identity. A lot of it, however, was completely new to me and I found myself paying rapt attention as I read, so educational was the experience; this was easily the most LGBTQIA-focused novel I have read, with its politicized characters and almost academic debate on language and gender.
Talley’s novel focuses on Toni and Gretchen, a couple since their junior year in high school, as they move to different cities for college. This is basically the scope of What We Left Behind; the book is entirely focused on its two protagonists as they grapple with everyday challenges, like a Harvard workload, and less universal experiences like questioning one’s own gender. Talley focuses entirely on the microcosm of this relationship, in almost anatomical detail; such intense attention could have become suffocating but the immersion in Toni and Gretchen’s past and present gives the reader a sense of being invested in their future.
“Then I saw her.
She was dancing. Her head was thrown back with laughter. Her eyes sparkled. Her smile radiated light.
Everything that had been spinning through my head floated away like air.”
What We Left Behind equipped me with a whole new vocabulary, which is ironic as language is a central concern of the novel. Identifying as genderqueer at the outset, Toni devotes a lot of focus to pronouns, going to great lengths to avoid gendered language not only reflexively, but in relation to everybody else: a task that the character admits to struggling with. The immense difficulty of this is evident, and this is, to an extent, only a symbolic part of Toni’s struggle with her gender and identity; the issues with which Toni grapples are gargantuan but Talley does a neat job of helping the reader to empathize with the character. The word “pronoun” is used almost 100 times in the novel, such is Toni’s dissatisfaction with the narrow framework language provides for discussing gender. Even in writing this review, I have obsessed over how to avoid using gendered pronouns to refer to Toni, so tangible seemed the feelings expressed. As a human, I learned a huge amount from Toni. As an English teacher, I have been inspired to research the whole issue of non-gendered pronouns in more detail, which, I would imagine, is something Talley hoped to achieve in writing Toni’s story. I did begin to wonder whether the fixation with grammar was a subconscious effort to distract Toni from more life-changing questions as the novel progresses, which I think is clever characterization by the author.
“Why does everyone always have to make such a huge deal about pronouns? It’s as if my whole life has to be dictated by those two or three letters. I wish pronouns had never been invented.”
If this all sounds confusing, I think that’s okay, because even Gretchen is often flummoxed by Toni’s increasingly stringent views. Gretchen is the more relatable of the two, largely because her reactions to Toni’s actions and pronouncements often reflect the reader’s (at least in my case). The novel begins with the couple planning to go to different universities in the same city; early on in the story but very late in the decision-making process, Gretchen announces a change of heart which initially seems selfish but later makes sense. Both characters battle an identity crisis of sorts: Toni’s is against the concept of binary gender, while Gretchen’s is concerned with establishing an identity that isn’t based on being half of a couple.
Crucially, all Talley’s characters are relatable without being one-dimensional. I was able to sympathize with each character at least once, while also finding them annoying at least once, which I see as a pretty realistic depiction of human nature. Away from Toni and Gretchen, the supporting cast is a little under-developed but I am inclined to think this is the point, serving to emphasise just how wrapped up in each other (and themselves) the protagonists are. Talley’s writing is too sharp for this to be an accident; at one point I was irritated by the hypocrisy of Toni’s criticisms of British people (because we are all rude and have STDs, apparently) before the narrative acknowledged Toni’s hatred of labels doesn’t stop the character from labelling others. It’s all very smart, as is Toni, which makes her impassioned discourse even more compelling.
“‘How amusing,’ I say as the other guys chuckle. ‘In fact, I find jokes about the decades-long sociopolitical movement to ensure legal and cultural equality for all simply hilarious.'”
One thing is abundantly clear when reading What We Left Behind; Robin Talley cares very deeply about these characters and it’s hard not to respect that and admire how multifaceted they are, particularly Toni. It is a gutsy move to place front and centre a character who alienates their closest friends, never mind objective readers, but it pays off here as Talley crafts a narrative which is sensitive as well as challenging. A YA novel that makes the reader think about identity, family, academic pressure, language, gender and sexuality without seeming like a chore is surely something to be celebrated.
What We Left Behind will be available soon at Greenville Public Library. Reserve a copy today.