The History of My Sexuality by Tobi Lakmaker review – funny failures | Fiction in translation

The History of My Sexuality by Tobi Lakmaker review – funny failures | Fiction in translation

“When you travel as a girl, you don’t learn anything about the world. All you learn is that there’s a way of looking at the world that doesn’t belong to you,” says twentysomething protagonist Sofie Lakmaker, who shares a surname and major biographical details with her author. She is recalling a trip around Europe she made at 18, with the possibility of danger at every corner: “At every hostel I stayed in I made sure to get a top bunk just so I could keep a lookout.” There’s the abjection that comes with having less power. “There were a lot of men who tried to kiss me on that trip. It was nuts.” As for the prospect of finding deliverance? Forget it. “You can race around the world searching for meaning and look for words that capture that meaning. But you won’t find anything.”

For Sofie, such passivity is a constant feature of being alive. Growing up in the well-heeled Oud-Zuid district of Amsterdam, things seem to happen to her, rather than by her. She is an aspiring writer who wishes to be one of “the Greats”, but one problem with trying to be a genius as a girl, she discovers, is that people spend a lot of time telling you how much nicer you would look if you grew your hair long.

The History of My Sexuality, translated from Dutch by Kristen Gehrman, charts Sofie’s coming of age. Divided into three parts, the novel regales with funny and affecting intimacy tales of failed relationships, failed academic pursuits, and friendships that sputter to a halt. The first part describes how Sofie was “first into men, and later into women, but really always into women”, with each chapter devoted to an ex. There is Walter, a conservative (“I tried to focus on that, to channel the weird connection between horniness and hate”); Jennifer, an actor; and Kyra, an art director who cries during sex. The second part recalls Sofie’s life studying philosophy, with pithy summaries of Theodor Adorno, Simone de Beauvoir and Ludwig Wittgenstein, though the narrative keeps “straying from the intellectual to the sexual. In that sense, I’m a lot more like Sigmund Freud than I thought.”

The self-aware millennial sex novel has become a mini-industry within the publishing world. Many features of this type of narrative are found in The History of My Sexuality. There is a protagonist who is established as clever (“the teacher kept telling me that I should sign up for the honours programme”) but holds the world at a gently disgusted distance (“the honours programme is for students with an inferiority complex”). Sex is void of pleasure and relationships a story of self-sabotage. The writerly voice is wry and detached, full of excoriating observations about others.

In a genre that renders the external world and other people distant and patchy against an anxious internal psyche, a reader may find themselves wondering what is really at stake besides the ego: what lies behind the barrier of shame. When the usually assured voice of the novel falters – a section on Sofie’s time learning Russian meanders – there is a feeling of being in a standup comedy set. You wonder where it is all heading. What distinguishes the book is the boldness of Sofie’s voice, as when she recalls run-ins with real-life Amsterdam celebrities, some of them howlingly rude. There is also a sweetness in the way Lakmaker describes human folly, how people can be gently ridiculous. Take Bennie, a former colleague who is prone to whispering “God, I really want to have a threesome”. “Usually men say that when they want to have a threesome with you, but Bennie wasn’t like that,” Sofie recalls. “He’d always follow up with, ‘but I’m just not ready yet, Sof, I’m not ready yet.’”

The final section discusses a death that has been hanging over “this entire story” like an “artificial mosquito buzzing sound”. There is no grand lesson to be discovered in loss; just the wreckage, the questions, and not knowing “how sad I actually am”. While concluding “there’s so little I know for sure”, Sofie does feel more sure of a desire to “make an appointment at the VU Medical Centre, where you can become less of a girl and more of a boy. That’s how I like to put it, you know? More boy.” This is mentioned lightly, cutting against the heavy scrutiny common in gender identity conversations today, and that is the point. In an era that demands people trade in absolutes – affirm exactly who they are, what they feel and believe, while shoring up the boundaries of what a person can be – the phrase “less girl, more boy” is fitting for a novel that depicts life as a process of change, questioning and discovery; and by doing so, touches on something closer to the truth.

The History of My Sexuality by Tobi Lakmaker, translated by Kristen Gehrman, is published by Granta (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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