Valerie Mason-John, a.k.a. Queenie, has written a loosely autobiographical book that surprises, compels, and repulses—sometimes all on the same page. Borrowed Body is the story of Pauline, an abandoned Black child fighting her way through the competitive and precarious environment that shapes her life in British foster care.
The first-person account remains in the present tense, which cleverly allows for subtle changes in Pauline's voice as she matures. Clear prose and level-headed reflection make for an effective style that avoids pathos. But violence always lurks close to the surface and it erupts with damning regularity.
The novel begins in the little girl's early years, when one set of mostly well-meaning adults after another is mandated to take her in. At the Barnardo's village for orphaned kids, Pauline is integrated into families that are in constant flux, where siblings and friends come and go like the seasons. Often the target of overt bigotry, she imagines ways to make her skin white and wonders when the transformation will finally happen.
In a second section that might have offered some hope, an extended stay with her biological mother is the source of physical and psychological abuse that is at times almost unbearable to read. Then, as Pauline reaches adolescence, she finds herself living on the streets of London, where destructive influences eventually land her in juvenile detention, which in turn perpetuates the relentless cycle of misery.
But she survives and few readers will remain untouched by her instinctive resilience in the face of cumulative losses and repeated assaults on her young spirit.
Throughout her childhood, Pauline actively wishes for God to come and take her to heaven, where she wants to be reunited with Annabel, a friend who died of a heart ailment. Feeling the presence of her friend in wind gusts and recognizing her in butterflies, Pauline relies on Annabel as an intermediary to the divine and seeks her advice when challenged by the unknown or frightened by harsh realities.
Without tipping into the mystical, Mason-John infuses the novel with just the right imaginary tone to convey Pauline's conflicted mix of endearing innocence and sharp mind. Over the years, as Pauline goes to live with different people, so do others come to live in her head. They either offer wise counsel or push her head on into trouble. It is when she negotiates with them that her strength and insight shine, and when she ignores them that her fate appears the most hopeless.
Borrowed Body is not a gay-themed novel. There are no gay characters ( open or closeted ) . By the end of the book, Pauline has not blossomed into a tough yet tender lesbian. But in as much as adoption is considered by many same-sex couples, this story could be read as a stark reminder of what can go wrong when unwanted children are born and then dumped into an anonymous bureaucratic care system. Whether Mason-John intended it or not, her little Pauline makes a perfect case for loving, adoptive parents—whatever gender they may be.