Bellies, the debut novel from Nicola Dinan, is a fresh and compelling literary romance that hopefully signposts exactly where the much-saturated genre is heading in the future.
It begins when Tom meets Ming at a university drag night and the two boys fall in love on the dancefloor. Through interlocking chapters from both Tom’s and Ming’s perspectives, the novel presents its tropes: the awkward and introverted Tom is drawn to the popular and outgoing Ming, rapt in his confidence and aura, he is a projection of everything Tom wishes he could be. Their romance is sweet and wholesome. They travel the world together. All seems well.
Until it isn’t. After a while, Ming starts being distant from Tom and reveals that he is considering transitioning. Suddenly, the novel turns from boy-meets-boy romance to something much more interesting. Traversing the pitfalls of the gender transition novel, Dinan, who herself is trans, deftly weaves a compelling and compassionate narrative that feels totally unique in this year’s literary calendar.
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Refreshing too is Dinan’s refusal to make her characters into saints; oftentimes, Ming is portrayed as immensely selfish and dislikeable. Dinan isn’t here to make the case for trans characters in fiction or to win over the hearts of bigots, instead she is focused on creating real characters in real situations. This isn’t to say it’s perfect, as the narrative continues Dinan does fall back a bit too much on some familiar tropes, but it is still so incredibly exciting to read a debut novel like Bellies. The fact this is Dinan’s first foray into novel writing is almost unbelievable.
Barry Pierce is a journalist and cultural commentator