Patricia Duncker's third book is an elegant exploration of the way gender and identity shape a life. The starring role is given to James Miranda Barry, a 19th century society figure, who enrolled as a student at Edinburgh and carved out an illustrious medical career on three continents. Nothing too strange about that, except that James Miranda Barry lived life as a man but was actually a woman.
Duncker has created "an imaginative exploration" of the real Barry's life, adjusting facts and adding figures to transform a story of love and adventure into a masque of sexual identity, where the hero is really the leading lady and the love interest is a kitchen maid, turned actress, who relishes "the breeches parts" in Shakespeare's plays.
It's an enthralling, strange tale, peopled with actors and soldiers, artists and revolutionary generals. Illicit liaisons, adultery, confused paternity, colonial history and family secrets provide the transgressive background to Barry's disorientating transformation into someone who was "neither man nor woman but partook of both", who combined "a woman's delicacy and grace" with "the courage and skill of a man."
Duncker's literary skills are equally adept and disorienting. Her prose is cool and clean, shot through with lush descriptions of flowers and landscape (her decadence seems to be saved for the glories of nature). Although Alice Jones the kitchen maid actress can proclaim to Barry: "You are who the world says you are. And the world says you're a man" but with Duncker it isn't quite that simple. Barry's manly charade is played out with the subtle, startling awareness of his (sic) womanly identity. It makes for a very sophisticated narrative where all surfaces are deceptive and all experiences are dual. --Eithne Farry