I started Irving’s book without any idea about what I was going to find between its covers. It happened to be a birthday present from a good friend of mine, and I only had my trust in his taste to rely on. Absent of expectation, meeting narrator William “Billy” Abbott was a “love-at-first-chapter” affair. Then, after chapter two, putting the book down felt more like letting a good friend down.
Already from the first few pages, Irving sets the tone for the book’s daring exploration of politics, sexuality, and beliefs about normality. Billy uses the role of narrator to take us through excerpts of his life, painting a picture of his movement through understanding himself and the world around him. Reviews have often described Billy as a description of the novel’s themes, rather than an embodiment of them, and I couldn’t agree more. Some say it’s a weakness, but the guided introspection and reflection were an enjoyable way to read through Billy’s life.
Irving also takes time to add intricacy and depth to each and every line, experience, or act he delivers – and the theatre reference is not unintentional. As a connecting thread of extended metaphor, Billy’s centre-stage for most of the novel is at Favourite River Academy, where he and most of his family are part of the dramatic arts. Irving uses the drawn curtain as a way to create an intimate connection between the actors and the audience, and allows the script and dialogue to truly fill and spill-over the pages. It’s a lengthy read, but you would spend the time listening to a friend, and Irving’s book is no different.
Critics and reviews all pointed to the pretty obvious commentary Irving makes within In One Person regarding the treatment of trans-gendered and trans-sexual people in society. The book explores the initial panic of HIV/AIDS in the 90s, and how many people’s sexuality were only brought into the open through the disease. It creates a weird juxtaposition, and almost tragic irony: what the audience already knew becomes known to the rest of the characters, but this new-found openness and truth is followed by a gradual, inevitable slip into death.
But the novel isn’t about “coming-out” or “coming-of-age.” It’s more – as Jacob Glover wrote – about coming home. Although the last third of the novel deals with the last hands dealt by the AIDS epidemic, it’s conclusion sees Billy having moved from a young, confused child, to a middle-aged bisexual man surrounded by people who are willing to defend him as much as he is willing to defend them. The story’s ending is filled with obituaries, but between the lines are moral cores of acceptance and “OK-ness.” Irving makes it very clear that the ills of society – whether it be a real disease, like AIDS, or a political one – will never be able to truly kill a person’s inner being. The novel positions itself between allowing oneself to be oneself, while accepting that others will also be themselves and that there’s little one can do to a) know what they’re really going through, or b) to change who they really are.
Without giving too much away, In One Person is an exploration of a lot more than the tenets upon which the plot is set. Irving has crafted an intricate, character-rich novel that may require a little more investment than another fiction novel, but that does take the reader through a lifetime of narrative. The author’s real-life experience in New York shines through to weave a very honest and sincere account of something very real, and although the stage performance may be dramatic, it will leave you feeling touched by every actor, every actress, every cameo appearance, and every prop, costume, and cue. In One Person is a book I would recommend to my kids one day, and I would like to recommend it to you now.