Review: Frankisstein

Jeanette Winterson’s Frankisstein is a novel about gender, sex, artificial intelligence and Promethean creation. Its protagonist is Ry, a transgender non-binary doctor who falls into a professional and later romantic entanglement with scientist Victor Stein, who is working on a project to revive cryogenically frozen rich people.

Here is a trans person commenting on Frankisstein. A key point:

“Ry’s gender is never honoured – Ry is continually misgendered, assaulted, made to feel freakish, and is never given any autonomy whatsoever by Winterson. As a trans person, it made me feel beyond uncomfortable, angry and actually kinda sick – something I don’t say lightly.”

(This is the only review I found of the novel by a trans person, but I freely admit I didn’t really know how to go about finding more.)

The novel’s definitely open to the charge of using Ry’s gender identity as edgy thematic material. Winterson’s project is partly about linking transness with transhumanism; she sees both as linked to transcending the limits of the human body. Not all transgender people, of course, even want to alter their bodies, and although Ry has had surgery, I think Winterson’s treatment of transness as a theme means her focus on body modification makes it seem a more inherent part of being trans than it actually is. Further, Ry does experience constant harassment and misgendering, plus a major sexual assault that comes out of the blue, which – in a media landscape that so often casts being transgender as basically traumatic, I think authors, and especially cis authors like Winterson, need to be more careful about giving transgender characters space to just be themselves without facing constant assault on their very identities.

I enjoyed Frankisstein and found it in particular an interesting meditation on the themes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But I am cis, so I don’t want to say too much about that: there are plenty of other cis reviewers out there singing the novel’s praises. Just a note, then, to say that this isn’t a book that centres trans people and their lived experience; instead, it sees transness as a theme to be explored, and that’s kind of problematic.

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