by Makenzie Robertson

Toward the end of Endpapers  by Jennifer Savran Kelly, the main character Dawn reflects on what it means to make conscious decisions about her life and the importance of rolling with the punches: “Because both the things we need and the things that will hurt us are everywhere.” But what happens when one “thing” is both? How can we learn to be both? Endpapers, Kelly’s 2023 debut novel, examines the intersections of community, identity, love, and life with a touch of mystery.

Dawn is an awkward young bookbinder living in New York City, desperate for answers and understanding about who she is. Stuck between the tantalizing what-ifs of life outside the gender binary and playing it safe in terms of how she is seen by the world, she is faced with the same situation that, at some point, we all are: Who are we meant to be? Already feeling the strain of her uncertainties in her relationship with Lukas, her partner of two years, Dawn finds a letter written on the cover of a novel hidden in between the endpapers (the paper glued onto the back side of a book cover) of a different book. Knowing only the name of the writer–Gertrude–Dawn becomes focused on finding out what happened to her and where she might be now. Gertrude becomes the catalyst for Dawn’s search for identity, pushing her to reflect on the differences between who she presents as, who she really is, and what she wants to say through her work.

Walking up and down the streets of the city, Dawn, and thus the readers, get an up-close look at New York City in 2003 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Dawn spends a lot of time walking around looking for graffiti and hoping to find inspiration for her own pieces. The city becomes a megaphone for underrepresented and silenced voices through this graffiti, placing the contradicting voices of its residents in front of thousands of people each day. Images depicting patriotism and criticism exist side by side as New York grieves  for a future that it can’t have: one that doesn’t include the scars of its attack. At the same time, Dawn grieves the loss of a life that was never hers: any sort of life that would seem to be “normal” or expected. She struggles to come to terms with the idea of leaving what seems to be a straight relationship for the unknown. Sometimes, as Kelly’s characters point out, it’s easier to let others define parts of you than do the heavy lifting yourself.

It’s not unusual to have a main character who is trying to figure out who they are; what I found refreshing was that Dawn makes mistakes. I loved how real all of the characters felt, especially Dawn. Not only does she make mistakes, but they are easy to understand. Instead of questioning why Dawn made specific decisions, I understood what led her to draw certain conclusions or to have certain emotions. When she starts working on a new art piece and gathers the other artists to look at what they had contributed to her piece, I knew exactly why she felt nervous, excited, and exposed all at once. The novel explores the difference between knowing and living your identity, an idea presented through Gertrude’s life. Through scenes of togetherness and painful realism, a narrative of strength and discovery leaves readers walking away with hope for a better future and an appreciation for the importance of community.

A word of advice to potential readers: If you enjoy stories that have a noticeable ending point and leave no question unanswered, Endpapers may not be the book for you.  The novel doesn’t end with some big realization or solution, but that’s just how life works. What seems important at the end of the story is that Dawn isn’t wandering around anymore, but instead has a community who understands and accepts her. The plot of Endpapers captures just one period of time in Dawn’s life,  just like the letter was a brief moment in Gertrude’s. Kelly delicately blends the past and present together with a taste of what the future could be. New York City could look like Dawn’s final artwork, full of queer bodies and support networks. Dawn could become someone unknown to the reader, but we don’t know what happens to her. Instead, her story ends with the promise of growth and a better tomorrow for queer people, artists and non-artists alike.

 

Endpapers is by Jennifer Savran Kelly, and published by Algonquin Books, February 2023.