Variations by Juliet Jacques

Variations is a collection of short stories about trans lives in Britain, exploring experiences from London in the days of Oscar Wilde’s trial to 2010s media and internet culture. The stories are all written in different formats and styles, taking inspiration from real life events and material, and are presented chronologically, though some are retrospective and looking back at the past. 

From a metafictional film script to an academic paper, Jacques finds innovative ways to tell stories and reflect on how trans voices can be heard. Though this is a short story collection, it feels a lot more than that, with everything feeling connected and part of a complex, multi-faceted narrative to explore histories and how they are told. It’s unlike any collection I’ve read before in terms of the format, and I found that so enjoyable that I almost wanted to draw out the reading process, letting anticipation build for what would come next.

The stories themselves are quite visceral, exploring identity and hope, friendship and community, but always with an edge of biting commentary. In particular, the final piece in the book, a trans man explaining his experiences with being in the public eye through a series of blog posts, feels particularly immediate, possibly because I had just seen another modern day article attacking trans people this morning so the ‘history’ was very much part of the present.

It’s hard to pick out favourites from the book, but I’ll have a go. I found the format of the film script for “‘The Twist'” highly effective in telling multiple narratives and showing the tension at play when cis people set about depicting trans people’s lives, even when adapting an apparent memoir. “Standards of Care” uses a more conventional diary format to tell an emotional and touching story of a trans woman from Norfolk finding community and “A Wo/Man of No Importance” stands out through the way it situates its characters amongst the famous figures of the 1890s, looking at ideas of how famed and not-so-famed history can collide.

I had high expectations for Variations, but Jacques’ use of the different formats for the stories and the way it follows broader narratives about trans life in Britain made it surpass those expectations. Often I find short stories even leave me wishing they were longer or not engaged, but these ones felt like they were exactly what they needed to be. It is the variations within it, as the title suggest, that bring the most joy: the multiplicity of voices explored through the characters and formats, and the different ideas and inspiration you can take from these.