“Bellies” by Nicola Dinan

Bellies: A Novel, Nicola Dinan (Doubleday, June 2023; Hanover Square Press, August 2023) Bellies: A Novel, Nicola Dinan (Doubleday, June 2023; Hanover Square Press, August 2023)

Tackling one of today’s most emotive topics, gender transition, debut novelist Nicola Dinan delivers a keenly observed and unflinching examination of that journey and its emotional, social and physical consequences, both for the individual and the people close to them.

The story begins as a boy-meets-boy romance. Ming and Tom are introduced at university by mutual friends. They fall in love and, after their degrees finish, they move to London. Tom abandons his interest in music and takes a job with an investment bank, which he does not enjoy, partly to support Ming, an aspiring playwright. All seems well until Ming decides to transition.

Tragically, the relationship doesn’t survive. Any possibility of friendship is scotched because Ming decides to use the details of their break-up as the basis for a well-received play. Ming moves to New York to pursue creative writing studies while Tom plods through his corporate career and unrewarding affairs with other men. It is only when an unexpected tragedy strikes that the hope of reuniting with Ming arises.

 

The main narrative focuses on the couple’s struggles for self-knowledge and self-actualization. Between the anxiety and exhilaration of first love and first steps into the wider world, author Dinan packs in a wealth of insights. She combines this with an enviable ability to perfectly capture a particular feeling, complex or psychological process in a few short sentences. In one of their first conversations, privileged Tom claims to have attended state school. Ming challenges this as the school in question is one of the best in the UK and brands such downward aspiration as a British, middle-class “charade”. Tom realises his mistake:

 

I both knew and didn’t know what I was doing, opting for form over substance, choosing a narrative that better served my self-image. Whether that was a human habit or a British one, I didn’t know.

 

Image is important in the novel, particularly in an individual’s self-projection, or what they think others want to see, and how they are perceived. This is necessary for Tom, who adopts smarter clothes and a more conservative haircut, to fit in at the bank, while it is crucial for Ming and the other transitioners at her support group who are constantly concerned by whether they can “pass” as their chosen gender.

Dinan likewise also has a forensic eye for the signifiers of social status, particularly clothes and food. Her sketch of Jason, Tom’s work colleague and “one of those gay men intent on queering corporate London”, is typically laconic yet so revealing. When Tom asks Jason why he has booked yet another Greek holiday, Jason replies: “Never too much Mykonos for a Clapham gay … Got to spend it somehow.” While this portrait is somewhat skewering, Dinan treats other characters more kindly. Cindy, Ming’s step-mother, is portrayed as an unashamed tai-tai. She is saved from being a stereotypical shopaholic by having a warm heart and common sense, which she is not afraid to dish out.

What lies beneath an image can be completely different to it. The title of the novel, Bellies, refers to the notion of showing that underside, in the same way a dog might roll over for a tummy rub. Doing so requires courage (and trust) because there is a very real risk of getting mauled. Fighting the fear and making the reveal is to be celebrated. But, as Dinan shows, it’s not easy; all the more so when loved ones are affected. By the final chapter, Ming and Tom have each found some kind of self-fulfillment—and paid the price. The fact that it costs is a tragedy.


Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.