Free-Diving Off the Banks of Normal: A Review of Debbie Taylor’s Herring Girl

Written by JLM; Published by GENDER FOCUS on September 7, 2014

Debbie Taylor’s release of Herring Girl takes us where we’re not yet comfortable but dying to go: beyond normal.

The novel interweaves lives, past and present, in a saga that will make you scoff at the absurdity, sigh at the humanity, and sink into your chair to have an occasional sob.

It begins−in relatively present time on the north bank of the river Tyne−with a sweet and insulated child named Ben, who is grappling with society-prescribed gender discomfort.

Ben lives in two different worlds: (1) the world of an inner identity that is primarily confined to the bedroom, in which Ben is safe to physically explore girlhood and (2) the external, socially-dictated world of an identity that exists in others’ minds and that requires Ben to act as a boy.

Ben is introduced to readers as a person removed from his present life by virtue of a mind-body divide. The two worlds, internal and external, are in conflict and they seem irreconcilable, despite Ben’s modest efforts to move between them. At the same time, Ben inhabits these worlds as part of a larger fishing community and the son of a well-known and macho fisherman, so the community struggles are entangled with identity struggles.

Mary, a very human clinician, is similar to Ben in that she does not hide her failure to conform strictly to rigid clinical standards of practice and contemporary psychological theories, though she is well versed in them all, intelligently and frequently relaying the standards she forsakes.

Eventually she works with and develops a bond with Ben that transforms her own concept of identity as a clinician. Prior to meeting Ben, Mary is on a quest to validate reincarnation as an alternative path to seeking explanations and healing for psychological and behavioral issues.

On a quest to explore options for a sex change, Ben ends up finding his way to an incredible cast of vivid and memorable characters from the late nineteenth century to the present, all connected in deeper and more fascinating ways than any of them can fathom.

They, along with Ben, end up taking a journey−into and out of selfhood and the present as we know it−that connects them, despite their frictions and differences, for this life and the lives to come. It is Ben’s regression into Annie’s (a herring girl from a previous life) consciousness that enlightens him about his present life.

All of this unfolds fairly rapidly, and once it unfolds, you’ll be hooked. Prior to being hooked, though, you might be inclined to swim in the other direction.

For me, the urge to flee was a combination of preconceived judgments about “paranormal fiction” and a fairly non-traditional view of gender.

Gender is a good place to start when reading this novel, if you’re not a fan of contemporary paranormal fiction. The author’s view on gender never becomes entirely evident; Taylor does not tell you what to think but offers a wider and more complex perspective on the spectrum of personality nuances and identity differences.

Having come to the novel as a gender studies scholar and as someone who relates to and promotes gender fluidity, I was uncomfortable with the idea of interpreting gender non-conformity as being related to unresolved issues in a past life. Doing so seems to reinforce the idea that gender norm nonconformity is a sign of a problem. If it were not a problem it would not need to be resolved through past life regression therapy.

But then something happened: I decided to trust Debbie Taylor and to go with her on her journey of a paranormal treatment of gender, rather than resisting it because it did not seem to match exactly my own theory and ideology.

After I let go of my current scholarly identity, the experience of reading the novel changed; it forced me to go through an exercise, not unlike the exercise that psychologist Mary uses with her clients, in which I had to push through my resistances and disbeliefs in order to engage in something risky, cooperative, and ultimately rewarding.

Taylor treads carefully enough through unorthodox clinician Mary’s personal contextualization of gender nonconformity as a paranormal issue to include Mary’s view without promoting it as the viewpoint endorsed by the novel. That’s very important to know before opening the book.

By the end of Herring Girl, neither Mary nor Ben (nor the issue of gender non-conformity) is at the forefront. The take-away is connection.

What I appreciate and respect most about Taylor’s work is that she unveils pertinent uses for the paranormal in a modern society that currently obsesses over, exploits and misunderstands it. Taylor’s framing of paranormality as a concept of connection has completely transformed the way in which I view the idea of the paranormal.

She renders the paranormal, and past-life regression work, valid not in terms of truth and provability but in terms of positive outcomes and productivity. Past-life regression also serves as Taylor’s literary device and it is a theme of the novel. It is also, itself, narrative work. The characters, as they regress into their past lives, become storytellers and it is storytelling that shakes their foundations and provides opportunities for growth and healing.

Life is revealed as an ongoing process rather than an entity with a beginning and an end. In addition, the binary gender system is depicted as a kind of fiction, as Taylor exposes in great detail the material and ritualistic qualities of all the innocuous and heavily loaded things we assign gender.

The storytelling practiced by the characters compels them to see the world differently, compels those around them to do the same, and propels everyone involved into a communal investigation of the interwoven narratives of the past lives that bind them.

They feel a sense of purpose and become witnesses, some skeptical and others believing, to a phenomenon in which they are creating their pasts in order to improve their present lives. It is a sublime lesson to readers about the act of storytelling being vital to community-building and healthy human development.

Even when they are exposed to the harsh and shocking realities of their past lives, it is obvious how much they all crave being part of the larger narrative of connection. Given that the prefix para means “along side” or “by extension,” Taylor does capture the essence of the concept for readers in a way that is new and not bound by its current popular uses.

Herring Girl exposes the ways in which paranormality, whether real or surreal, might transform our perception and treatment of identity. Identity is always essential but the novel shifts the notion of a fixed identity to a notion of a mobile and transient one.

The binary question of which world-of-identity is real and which is false is turned on its head, as all of Herring Girl’s central characters, not just Ben, are drawn into a set of circumstances that reveal the impermanence and fluidity of identity.

Impermanence and access to “other lives” allow characters to view themselves more expansively. What’s particularly interesting is that although Mary’s clinical approach is aimed at finding an answer about present behavior in past life circumstances, the lesson to be learned is that those answers can but are not necessarily there to change how we are in the present. The idea that there is something beyond the present, even more than the idea of a past, is what changes the present. It is up to each character to explore what works for her.

Ben’s relationship with Paul, Ben’s father, for example, demonstrates the instructive, therapeutic work of the novel. At the start of Herring Girl, Ben and Paul love one another but are set apart because of Paul’s rigid insistence that Ben be his rough and tumble fishing buddy. Ben’s father has shut him out and at the start of the novel his view of gender is very limited.

One of my favorite parts of the novel is Taylor’s genius decision to end the novel with Paul’s confrontation of his errant and deeply rooted homophobia. She does so in a way that is hilarious, disturbing and ultimately redeeming. I’m still reeling, and rather weepy, over the end of the novel— not because of the way in which the mysteries are revealed and the dramas are resolved, but because of the profound, painful and beautiful way in which Paul learns and grows toward acceptance of his son and himself.

I was not entirely satisfied with the end of the book, but Paul’s transformation−through which readers can see that it is possible to let go of present fictions and let-be past truths−is a remarkable achievement of the novel.

You don’t have to take a position in relation to the paranormal or to gender to read this book; Taylor will take you somewhere new where the work of positioning turns out to be futile. Ben’s perspective alone, though it is contained in that compelling capsule we all know: of childhood, will not achieve this. The entire work needs to be read, from start to finish, with an investigative attitude and an expectation of surprise and confrontation.

Herring Girl allows us to contend with a sea of phobias and impulses while still remaining relatively safe, on the dock. In doing so, it makes a larger point about fiction. Fiction is an abnormal, paranormal, and perhaps even epinormal art, and the novel’s conflicted relationship between land and sea−or reality and fiction−captures well these dimensions of normality.

A week prior to my first encounter with Taylor’s novel, I had defended my thesis on the way in which Virginia Woolf’s writing critiques the abnormality/normality binary so fundamental to the medical model of psychiatry and the “alternative medicine” her writing offers not as a replacement for but as an accompaniment to it.

It seemed like it might be a big jump to go from disability theory and Woolf’s dealings with cognitive abnormality to Taylor’s paranormality, but it was no jump at all.

If anything, it was a dive. I’ve never dived, though, so, presumably, only through my imagination and the narrative articulation of diving can I know anything about it. That’s what Debbie Taylor is after, it seems−getting us to entertain earnestly and with depth what we don’t know and haven’t accessed, and what might help us, in spite of ourselves, to connect with one another and become kinder, more empathetic people.

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